Voting in Indian elections reaches next-to-last phase

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NEW DELHI — Indians are voting in the next-to-last round of 6-week-long national elections, marked by a highly acrimonious campaign with Prime Minister Narendra Modi flaying the opposition Congress party rival Rahul Gandh’s family for the country’s ills.

Sunday’s voting in 59 constituencies, including seven in the Indian capital, will complete polling for 483 of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The voting for the remaining 60 seats will be held on May 19.

Votes will be counted on May 23. India has a total of 900 million voters.

Turnout in the first five phases averaged 67%, nearly the same as in 2014 elections that brought Modi to power.

Opinion polls say Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party continues to be the front-runner, but it is likely to return with a lesser number of 282 seats. The BJP captured 31% of votes in 2014, but it won more than half the seats to wrest power from the Congress party in a first-past-the-post electoral system in which a candidate who receives the most votes wins.

Modi is running his campaign like a presidential race, a referendum on his five years of rule with claims of helping the poorest with doles, free health care, providing toilets in their homes and helping women get free or cheap cooking gas cylinders.

At the same time, he is banking on stirring Hindu nationalism by accusing the Congress party of being soft on nuclear-rival Pakistan and terrorism, pandering to minority Muslims for votes and pampering Kashmiri separatists.

Opposition parties accuse Modi of digressing from the main issues affecting nearly 70% of population living in villages and small towns. The opposition is challenging him over India’s 6.1% unemployment rate — the highest in decades— and the economic difficulties of farmers hurt by low crop prices that led many to take own lives. Opposition officials have also alleged corruption in a deal for India to purchase French fighter jets.

“Modi personally has been the most visible prime minister,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political commentator and biographer of Modi. But he adds, “There could be an element of fatigue also. People at the end of it are looking at their bottomline. I think the issues of employment and rural distress are very important.”

Throughout the monthlong campaign, Modi has projected himself as a “chowkidar,” or watchman, guarding the country’s interests.

Rahul Gandhi, 48-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress party president, has accused Modi of buying 36 French Rafale fighters jets at an exorbitant price, and helping a private industrialist by promoting him as an offset partner of Dassault, the aircraft manufacturer.

Gandhi adopted a rallying cry of “Chowkidar Chor Hai,” or “the watchman is a thief.”

Stung by the accusation, Modi accused Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s late father and former prime minister of India, of corruption — an apparent reference to the purchase by India of Swedish Bofors artillery guns in 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi was accused of receiving kickbacks for the deal, but the allegation was never proved in court.

Modi also is unsparing in his criticism of Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, blaming him for the country’s border disputes with China and Pakistan and a lack of development while he was at the helm 1947 to 1964.

Rahul reacted with a tweet: “Dear Mr Modi, Your recent statements, interviews & videos are giving India the distinct feeling that you’re cracking under pressure.”

He has challenged Modi to a public debate over the Rafale aircraft deal. But Modi so far has ignored the challenge.

Gandhi’s biggest political triumph since he joined politics 15 years ago was easily his party’s win in assembly elections in December, wrangling power away from Modi’s BJP in the states of Rajasthan, Madya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The opposition has also accused Modi of a following a pattern of antagonism against Muslims since his government government came to power in 2014.

Modi has adopted a nationalist pitch in trying to win votes from the country’s Hindu majority by projecting a tough stance against Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbor and archrival.

Human Rights Watch reported an increase in attacks by so-called cow vigilantes against Muslims and lower-caste Hindus suspected of illegally transporting cattle or eating beef in recent years. Hindus comprise more than 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people and Muslims nearly 16%.


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