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Voting begins in the final round of India’s elections, a referendum on Modi’s decade in power

NEW DELHI: Indians began voting Saturday in the final round of a six-week national election that is a referendum on Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decade in power.

The election is considered one of the most important in India’s history. If Modi wins, he would be only the second Indian leader to hold power for a third term after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
The seventh round of voting in 57 constituencies across seven states and one Union Territory will complete polling for all 543 seats in the powerful lower house of parliament. Nearly 970 million voters – more than 10% of the world’s population – could elect a new parliament for five years. More than 8,300 candidates applied for the position.
Most polls show Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party leading the broad opposition alliance that is challenging them, led by the Congress party. Votes will be counted Tuesday, with results expected by the end of the day.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses supporters during an election rally in New Delhi on May 22, 2024. (REUTERS)

Modi’s campaign, vying for a third consecutive term, began on a platform of economic progress. He promised to uplift the poor and transform India into a developed nation by 2047. But in recent weeks his promise has become increasingly shrill as he escalated the polarizing rhetoric into one incendiary speech after another that took on targets the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up 14% of the people. of India’s 1.4 billion inhabitants.
On Thursday, after finishing his election campaign, Modi went to meditate at a memorial site honoring a famous Hindu saint who is believed to have achieved enlightenment there.
When elections began in April, Modi and his BJP were expected to win another mandate.
Since coming to power in 2014, Modi has enjoyed immense popularity. His supporters see him as a strong, self-made leader who has improved India’s standing in the world, and credit his business-friendly policies with making India’s economy the fifth largest largest in the world.
At the same time, his government has seen brazen attacks and hate speech against minorities, particularly Muslims. Indian democracy, his critics say, is faltering and Modi has increasingly blurred the line between religion and state.
But as the campaign progressed, his party faced stiff resistance from the opposition alliance and its main face, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party. They have attacked Modi for his Hindu nationalist policies and hope to capitalize on growing economic discontent.
Pre-poll polls showed that voters were increasingly concerned about unemployment, rising food prices and a general sense that only a small portion of Indians had benefited despite buoyant economic growth under Modi, making it seem like closer competition than initially expected.
In this election, Modi’s BJP – which controls much of India’s Hindi-speaking central and northern parts – has sought to expand its influence by making inroads into the country’s eastern and southern states, where regional parties have greater influence .
The BJP was also banking on consolidating the votes of the Hindu majority, which makes up 80% of the population, after Modi opened a much-needed Hindu temple on the site of a razed mosque in January. Many saw it as the unofficial start to his campaign, but analysts said enthusiasm for the temple may not be enough to win votes.
Instead, Modi stepped up anti-Muslim rhetoric after voter turnout fell slightly below 2019 figures in the early rounds of 2024 polls.
This was seen as a tactic to energize his Hindu voter base. But analysts say it also reflects the lack of a major national issue that could help Modi propel his BJP to election victory, as he has done before.
In 2014, Modi’s status as a political outsider cracking down on deep-rooted corruption won over voters disillusioned by decades of dynastic politics. And in 2019, he swept the polls on a wave of nationalism after his government launched airstrikes on rival Pakistan in response to a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian soldiers.
But this time things are different, analysts say, giving a potential boost to Modi’s political challengers.
“The opposition has somehow managed to derail his plan by shifting the narrative to local issues, such as unemployment and the economy. In these elections, people vote keeping various issues in mind,” said Rasheed Kidwai, political analyst.

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