India's Mammoth Election is More Than Halfway Done as Millions Begin Voting in Fourth Round

People stand in a queue to cast their votes during the fourth phase of general election, on the outskirts of Samastipur, in the Indian state of Bihar, Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo: AP/Manish Swarup

SAMASTIPUR, India — Millions of Indians across 96 constituencies began casting their ballots on Monday as the country's gigantic, six-week-long election edges past its halfway mark. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third straight term with an eye on winning a supermajority in Parliament.



Monday’s polling in the fourth round of multi-phase national elections across nine states and one union territory will be pivotal for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, as it includes some of its strongholds in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.



Crucial seats in Maharashtra and Bihar states, where the BJP governs in alliances with regional parties, are also up for grabs in this phase.



In Bihar’s Samastipur city, hundreds of voters lined up at a polling station that opened at 7 a.m. amid tight security arrangements. Voters said they were concerned about rising food prices, lack of employment and economic development in the state.



Most polls predict a win for Modi and his BJP, which is up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.



The staggered election will run until June 1 and nearly 970 million voters, more than 10% of the world’s population, will elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years. The votes are scheduled to be counted on June 4.



Monday will also see the end of polling in the country’s five southern states, a region that has mostly rejected Modi’s BJP since it first came to power in 2014 but where winning more seats is crucial for the party's campaign goal of securing a two-thirds majority in Parliament.



Kashmir’s largest city, Srinagar, will also vote Monday in the first polls since Modi’s government stripped the disputed region of its semi-autonomy and took direct control of it in 2019. Despite hailing the move as a success that would bring economic development and peace to the restive region, the BJP is not contesting the polls in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, where anti-India sentiment runs deep, for the first time since 1996.



Instead, two regional parties — the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party — are the main contenders for the three seats in the valley and both are opposed to the BJP.



Opposition parties say the BJP’s decision not to contest the election is in contrast to its claims and that poll results may contradict the government's narrative of success in Kashmir, which is now run by unelected government officials and bureaucrats.



Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, a leader of the People’s Democratic Party who is seeking to represent Srinagar, said the election there was about “a referendum against the government's decisions and policies that were implemented without any public consent."



While Modi began his campaign with a focus on India’s development in his 10 years in power, he has since doubled down on the BJP’s Hindu nationalism pitch in recent weeks.



In campaign rallies, Modi has called Muslims "infiltrators" and accused the main opposition Congress Party of scheming to redistribute wealth from the country’s Hindus to Muslims, who comprise 14% of the country’s more than 1.4 billion people.



Nikhilesh Mishra, a 42-year-old bank employee in Samastipur, said: “Raking up issues of Hindus versus Muslims will take us nowhere."



He said Modi's BJP-led alliance in Bihar, which secured an overwhelming majority in the 2019 election, had failed to bring development to the state, which is among the poorest in India.



Mishra said rising inflation and unemployment are driving young people to migrate to other states, draining it of its talent. “We want development. ... This time, we want change in the government,” he said.



Meanwhile, Modi appeared confident of BJP’s chances in Bihar, telling the New Delhi Television channel on Sunday that his alliance will fare better than it did in the 2019 elections, when it lost one seat.



"We may not even lose one this time,” he said.



Some analysts say the change in tone comes as the BJP hopes to consolidate votes among the majority Hindu population, who make up 80% of voters, and to distract voters from larger issues, like unemployment, corruption and inflation.



Despite India being one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, many people continue to face economic distress, which has been a key focus in the opposition's campaign.


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