Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 11 December 2019

India elections 2019: Another 155 million go to polls for second phase

Nearly 900 million people will have voted by the time elections end in May

People wait in queues to cast their votes outside a polling station during the second phase of general election in Hojai district in the northeastern state of Assam, India, April 18, 2019. Reuters
People wait in queues to cast their votes outside a polling station during the second phase of general election in Hojai district in the northeastern state of Assam, India, April 18, 2019. Reuters

Voters across swaths of southern India began queuing up early on Thursday in the second phase of a mammoth, staggered general election in which opposition parties are trying to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from winning a second term.

More than 155 million people are eligible to vote in the second phase, which covers 95 parliament constituencies in 12 states including parts of restive Jammu and Kashmir. India's parliament has 545 members.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, voting began amid massive security and a lockdown in parts of the main city.

Kashmiri Muslim separatist leaders who challenge India's sovereignty over the disputed region have called for a boycott of the vote, saying it is an illegitimate exercise under military occupation. Most polling stations in the Srinagar and Budgam areas of Kashmir looked deserted in the morning, with more armed police, paramilitary soldiers and election staff than voters.

Authorities shut down mobile internet services and closed some roads with steel barricades and razor wire as armed soldiers and police in riot gear patrolled the streets.

Voting was expected to be brisk in the Hindu-dominated Udhampur constituency of the region.

Mr Modi has used Kashmir as one of the top issues of his campaign and played up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on February 14 that killed 40 soldiers. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Some Kashmiris support demands that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, and civilian street protests against Indian control are common.

Critics say that Mr Modi’s Hundu nationalism has aggravated religious tensions in India generally and particularly in Kashmir. But Mr Modi’s supporters say the tea seller's son from Gujarat state has improved the nation's standing.

The focus will be on the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where the main opposition Congress party and its allies need to win big if they hope to oust Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The prime minister secured a landslide majority in the previous general election in 2014, in part by winning sweeping victories in six northern states that gave the party 70 per cent of all its seats, said Neelanjan Sircar, an assistant professor at Ashoka University near the capital of New Delhi.

“You can never expect you’ll do that again," he said. "Those seats that you lose, you’ll have to make up somewhere."

Mr Sircar also said the BJP would be looking to make gains in the southwest state of Karnataka.

The election began last week and will end next month, culminating a giant exercise involving almost 900 million people. Votes will be counted on May 23 and the results are expected the same day.

Mr Modi and the BJP have run an aggressive campaign, playing to their nationalist, Hindu-first base and attacking rivals they accuse of appeasing minorities.

Critics say such divisive election rhetoric is a threat to India's secular foundations.

"Communal polarisation is obviously the biggest issue for me," said Rakesh Mehar, who voted in Karnataka's capital of Bengaluru. "And the growing intolerance in the country is what worries me the most."

Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu ascetic from the BJP who governs northern Uttar Pradesh, was banned from campaigning for three days from Tuesday because of anti-Muslim comments, India's election commission said this week. During the campaign, he has described Muslims in India as a “green virus” that is set to “engulf the nation.”

The Congress party is focusing on concerns about rising unemployment and agrarian distress and is staking its campaign on a promise for a generous handout to India's poorest families.

Voters in Bengaluru, once a sleepy retirement town that has been transformed into India's technology hub, said they wanted lawmakers who would fix infrastructure problems such as traffic congestion and poor water management.

"We have been voting every time expecting a change but nothing has come so far. People are talking about national issues," said Manjunath Munirathnappa. "But only when they fix the local issues will there be progress in the nation."

Updated: April 18, 2019 11:03 AM

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