Modi votes in home state as mammoth India election hits half-way mark


Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among millions of voters across 93 constituencies that went to polls in the third phase of India’s mammoth general election.

The world’s most populous nation began voting on April 19 in a seven-phase election in which nearly one billion people are eligible to vote, with ballots set to be counted on June 4.

Tuesday’s polling covered 93 seats in 11 states and union territories, with Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west and Karnataka in the south accounting for 50 seats. That completed voting for 283 of 543 seats for the Lok Sabha, as the lower house of Indian parliament is called.

Modi, 73, is seeking a rare, third straight term in a vote which pits his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against an alliance of more than two dozen opposition parties, led by the Indian National Congress.

Modi cast his ballot in home state of Gujarat’s Gandhinagar constituency where his number two, Home Minister Amit Shah, is the BJP candidate.

He urged citizens to actively participate in the “festival of democracy”, while taking care of their health as summer temperatures continued to rise in many parts of the country.

Clad in saffron and white, he was surrounded by hundreds of supporters and party members, signing autographs and talking to children on the way to the polling station.

Modi changed his campaign strategy after the first phase of voting and focused more on firing up BJP’s Hindu base by attacking rivals as pro-Muslim, even as a survey said jobs and inflation were the main concerns of voters.

In his public speeches, he referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children”, making India’s 220-million-plus Muslim population increasingly anxious about their future in the country.

The statements have also prompted condemnation from opposition politicians, who have complained to election authorities.

‘Not against Islam or Muslims’

In an interview with broadcaster Times Now aired on Monday, Modi said he does not oppose Islam or Muslims and wants the community to think about their future growth as they vote.

“We are not against Islam. We are not against Muslims. This is not our domain,” he said. “They [opposition] would vilify us as anti-Muslim and then would claim they are friends of Muslims. They gained through this. That is why they created this atmosphere of fear. They were reaping benefits by fearmongering. But the Muslim community is aware now.”

Modi added, “Please introspect. Think. The country is progressing, if your community is feeling deprived, what’s the reason for it? Why didn’t you get the benefits of government schemes when Congress was in government?”

Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor at news magazine The Caravan, said it is the first time in a long time that Modi has been so direct in his statements on Muslims.

“I haven’t seen him be this directly bigoted, usually he alludes to bigotry,” he said. “The comments on wealth redistribution are targeting something from the Congress manifesto that just does not exist and that is frankly quite unfortunate.”

Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political science professor at New Delhi’s Ashoka University, said changes in the BJP’s campaign may also be a sign of anxiety around low voter turnout it had not anticipated.

“The mask has dropped, and I think it is political compulsions that have made them do this,” he said.

“In recent elections, the BJP’s wins have been associated with getting the voters out [to vote],” Mahmudabad said. “There may be some fatigue, anti-incumbency or even disenchantment,” which has led the BJP to escalate their rhetoric.

India’s election will be conducted over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging the democratic exercise in a vast nation. Meanwhile, much of South Asia is under a heatwave that saw several constituencies vote in searing temperatures.

In the city of Mathura, a three-hour drive from New Delhi, temperatures crossed 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) on polling day, and election commission figures showed turnout dropping nearly nine points to 52 percent from five years earlier.

Journalist Sravasti Dasgupta told Al Jazeera the voter turnout in the continuing election has seen a “significant dip” compared with 2019.

“In the first two phases, we have seen the voter turnout was somewhere around 66 percent. In comparison, the voter turnout in 2019 for the same two phases was 69 percent,” said Dasgupta, who works for The Wire, an independent news website.

“Lots of reasons are being given, the fact that there is an intense heatwave sweeping across most parts of the country as we are in the middle of summer here in India.”

India’s weather bureau has forecast more hot spells to come in May and the election commission formed a task force last month to review the impact of heat and humidity before each round of voting.__Al Jazeera