India’s election enters fourth phase as rhetoric over religion, inequality sharpens

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India voted on Monday in the fourth phase of a seven-week long general election, as campaign rhetoric became more strident over economic disparities and religious divisions.

The world’s most populous nation began voting on April 19 in a seven-phase election in which nearly one billion people are eligible to vote, with ballots set to be counted on June 4.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a rare, third straight term in a contest which pits his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against an alliance of more than two dozen opposition parties, including main rival Congress.

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“I appeal to all to vote for a decisive government,” said Amit Shah, Modi’s powerful aide and the country’s home or interior minister, as voting began.

Voting on Monday for 96 parliament seats largely covered the southern and eastern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, where the BJP is not as strong as in the country’s north and west.

Srinagar, the main city of the troubled Kashmir Valley, is also voting for the first time since Modi’s 2019 decision to remove the region’s semi-autonomy. The BJP is not contesting there, as analysts said the outcome was likely to contradict Modi’s narrative of a peaceful, more integrated Kashmir.

“I voted after over two decades ... just to get relief from what we are facing here,” said Bashir Ahmad Lala, 67, a Srinagar resident.

Police imposed restrictions on gatherings ahead of the vote in the militarized region, while opposition parties said their workers were arrested, which police denied.

Former Jammu and Kashmir state Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, president of the National Conference party, said Modi and Shah “will definitely get defeated” nationally.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim lawmaker from the southern city of Hyderabad, which also voted on Monday, said the BJP had fewer supporters after Modi’s recent “venomous” comments against minority Muslims.

“An individual cannot be bigger than the country. So, Modi is not the country,” he added. Modi has said he does not oppose Muslims and that his government does not discriminate.

Hindus vs Muslims

Analysts have raised doubts over whether the BJP and its allies can win the landslide predicted by opinion polls, and said the lower turnout had prompted Modi to change the tack of his campaign after the first phase.

Modi has shifted focus from his economic record to accusing the Congress of planning to extend welfare benefits to Muslims at the expense of disadvantaged tribal groups and Hindu castes.

Last month, he said the Congress planned to redistribute the wealth of majority Hindus among Muslims, who he referred to as “infiltrators” who have “more children”.

Congress has denied making any such promises and has said
Modi is rattled by the turnout, which the BJP denies.

About 80 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are Hindus but it also has the world’s third largest Muslim population of about 200 million people. Surveys suggest voters are most concerned about unemployment and price rises.

“I will vote for someone who is educated and can develop our area,” said Pradipta Kumar Sethi, a resident of Odisha’s tribal Koraput district.

Congress is pitching for better representation and welfare programs for poor and disadvantaged groups, stating that wealth inequality has worsened during Modi’s 10-year term, which the government has rejected.

“Do not get deterred by the diversionary tactics of hateful speeches which divide the society,” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said in a message to voters.

The opposition INDIA alliance got a shot in the arm ahead of Monday’s vote when the Supreme Court gave temporary bail to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has been detained in a graft case, allowing him to campaign.

The impact of hot weather on turnout was also being monitored as maximums in parts of the country touched 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) or higher in the past week.

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