Six weeks, 969 million voters, 2,600 parties - Hindu nationalist Modi the favourite as India votes


Voters line up outside a polling station to vote during the first phase of the general election in Kairana, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. -- Photo: Reuters

HARIDWAR India (AFP): India began voting Friday in a six-week election with an all but assured victory for Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A total of 969 million people are eligible to take part in the world's biggest vote -- a staggering logistical exercise that critics say follows a concerted effort to delegitimise rivals.

A long and winding queue was patiently assembled outside a polling station in the Hindu holy city of Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganges river, even before the booths opened.

"I am here because I am happy about the direction the country is headed," said autorickshaw driver Ganga Singh, 27.

"I will vote keeping in mind not personal welfare but the country's prosperity."

Modi, 73, remains resoundingly popular after a decade in office that has seen India rise in diplomatic clout and economic power, as well as efforts by his government to bring the country's majority faith in ever closer alignment with its politics.

"I urge all those voting... to exercise their franchise in record numbers," he wrote in a social media post on X as the election began.

"Every vote counts and every voice matters!"

Modi has already led the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through two landslide victories in 2014 and 2019, forged in large part by his appeal to the Hindu faithful.

This year, he presided over the inauguration of a grand temple to the deity Ram, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque razed by Hindu zealots.

Construction of the temple fulfilled a long-standing demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated across India with back-to-back television coverage and street parties.

A voter's finger is marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot at a polling station during the first phase of voting for national elections in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Almost 1 billion Indians begin voting today in elections lasting more than six weeks, weighing up whether to hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third five-year term to continue his mix of economic and Hindu nationalist policies. -- Photo: Dhiraj Singh/BloombergA voter's finger is marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot at a polling station during the first phase of voting for national elections in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Almost 1 billion Indians begin voting today in elections lasting more than six weeks, weighing up whether to hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third five-year term to continue his mix of economic and Hindu nationalist policies. -- Photo: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

- 'We have no money' -

Analysts have long expected Modi to triumph against a fractious alliance of more than two dozen parties that have yet to name a candidate for prime minister.

His prospects have been further bolstered by several criminal probes into his opponents and a tax investigation this year that froze the bank accounts of Congress, India's largest opposition party.

"We have no money to campaign, we cannot support our candidates," Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent Congress leader, told reporters in March.

"Our ability to fight elections has been damaged."

Opposition figures and human rights organisations have accused Modi's government of orchestrating the probes to weaken rivals.

Modi's tenure has seen India overtake former colonial ruler Britain as the world's fifth-biggest economy, and Western nations lining up to court a prospective ally against regional rival China's growing assertiveness.

In doing so, they have sidestepped concerns over the taming of India's once-vibrant press and restrictions on civil society that have seen rights groups like Amnesty severely curtail their local operations.

Last year, the tax office raided the BBC's local offices weeks after the British broadcaster aired a documentary questioning Modi's role in 2002 religious riots that killed around 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

While India is constitutionally secular, the country's 220 million-strong Muslim community and other minorities have felt threatened by the rise of Hindu nationalist fervour.

Modi's time in office had seen "a pattern of repression to undermine democracy and civic space", rights group CIVICUS said in a Wednesday report.

Voters register outside a polling station during the first phase of voting for national elections in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Almost 1 billion Indians begin voting today in elections lasting more than six weeks, weighing up whether to hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third five-year term to continue his mix of economic and Hindu nationalist policies. -- Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/BloombergVoters register outside a polling station during the first phase of voting for national elections in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Almost 1 billion Indians begin voting today in elections lasting more than six weeks, weighing up whether to hand Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third five-year term to continue his mix of economic and Hindu nationalist policies. -- Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

- 'Hatred and injustice' -

Modi's BJP is challenged by an alliance of more than two dozen parties that have come together in an electoral bloc.

It has accused Modi's government of using law enforcement agencies to selectively target its leaders and undermine its campaign.

In Bastar, a remote forested district bigger than Belgium in the heart of India's central wilderness, 35-year-old farmer Birong Karma said he had decided to support the opposition alliance.

"Modi has also jailed some opposition leaders and I don't like that," he told AFP.

Gandhi -- the scion of India's most famous political dynasty, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister -- was briefly disqualified from parliament last year after being convicted of criminal libel.

The 53-year-old has criticised the government for democratic backsliding, failing to create jobs for India's millions of out-of-work youth, and its chest-thumping Hindu nationalism.

"Your one vote can put an end to inflation, unemployment, hatred and injustice," his party said on X.

But Gandhi has already led Congress to two defeats against Modi and his efforts to dent the premier's popularity have failed to register with voters.

Published opinion polls are rare in India, but a Pew survey last year found Modi was viewed favourably by nearly 80 percent of the public.

Voting will be staggered over seven stages between April 19 and June 1, with more than a million polling stations across India.

Ballots will be counted all at once on June 4 and are usually announced on the same day. - AFP

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