India’s mammoth election draws to an end

Millions of Indians voted Saturday in the last phase of India’s mammoth election that will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures a third consecutive term in office.
India’s mammoth election:- Millions of Indians voted Saturday in the last phase of India’s mammoth election that will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures a third consecutive term in office. [VOA]
India’s mammoth election:- Millions of Indians voted Saturday in the last phase of India’s mammoth election that will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures a third consecutive term in office. [VOA]

India’s mammoth election:- Millions of Indians voted Saturday in the last phase of India’s mammoth election that will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures a third consecutive term in office.

Voters were casting ballots for 57 parliamentary constituencies in the seventh phase of the polls that stretched over six weeks in the searing summer heat.

Among the seats for which votes were cast on Saturday was Modi's constituency, Varanasi, a holy Hindu city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The Hindu nationalist leader has won the seat in the last two elections with huge margins.

All eyes are now on Tuesday, when votes will be counted for all 543 elected seats in the lower house of Parliament. As India uses electronic voting machines, results are expected the same day.

The elections will test the popularity of 73-year-old Modi, whose image as a strong leader and champion of Hindu nationalism has been boosted by a host of welfare measures for tens of millions of poor people during his decade in power.

The Bharatiya Janata Party campaign was dominated by the Indian leader, who crisscrossed the country to hold over 200 rallies.

Before elections got underway, the BJP was expected to cruise to an easy victory. The party had set a target of winning a supermajority by winning 400 seats.

Most observers say it could fall short of that ambitious goal even though it is expected to win a majority.

"It’s a litmus test for Mr. Modi. When elections started it appeared to be a one-horse race. He appeared very invincible, very formidable and raised the bar very high," political analyst Rasheed Kidwai told VOA.

But he said an opposition alliance of more than two dozen parties that is challenging Modi has put up a spirited fight.

"The final numbers will depend on whether the BJP can hold ground in populous northern states where the party has secured huge success in the past," he said.

On Friday, the Indian leader started two days of meditation at the southernmost tip of India at a memorial for Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda -- images released by his party showed him clad in saffron robes with eyes closed and prayer beads in hand.

Both Modi and the opposition alliance have exuded confidence about winning.

The opposition’s hopes of making gains rest on tapping into growing resentment over high unemployment that faces the country’s huge youth population and rising prices.

Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, who was the face of the opposition, focused his campaign on the need to create jobs and growing wealth inequality in the country and said the government’s policies have favored the rich at the expense of the poor. The party has promised cash transfers to poor women and a guarantee of apprenticeships for college graduates. It has also raised concerns about democratic backsliding under Modi.

The Congress Party has been marginalized over the last decade amid the BJP’s rise into a formidable political force under Modi – it only holds 52 seats in Parliament.

Political observers said the party and its allies could regain some momentum.

"Much will depend on how the Congress Party and its allies perform in swing states like Maharashtra in the west, Bihar in the east and Karnataka in the south," according to Kidwai.

Still the opposition faces a daunting task. To make significant gains it would also have to fare well in populous northern states, where the BJP is well entrenched and where its Hindu nationalist agenda resonates the most. The BJP, for its part, hopes to expand its influence in some southern states where it has virtually no presence.

The election campaign has been called one of India’s most divisive. At rallies, Modi charged that the Congress Party was pro-Muslim and planned to hand benefits reserved for lower caste Hindus to Muslims if it is voted into power – analysts said the polarizing rhetoric was a bid to shore up support among his Hindu base after voting got off to a lackluster start last month.

In a letter addressed to voters in Punjab on Thursday, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Modi of indulging in the "most vicious form of hate speeches that are purely divisive in nature" during the campaign and accused him of lowering the dignity of the prime minister's office.

Punjab was among the seven states and one federal territory that voted Saturday.

Only India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, secured a third straight term in office. The winning party is expected to form the next government by mid-June before the term of the present Parliament ends. VOA/SP

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