A woman checks the temperature of a voter before he casts his vote at a polling booth in Purulia district, India. Reuters
Gulf Today Report
Two Indian states with sizeable Muslim populations began voting in local elections Saturday that will show how support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding up following a coronavirus-stricken year, and months of protests by farmers against his agricultural reforms.
Hindu nationalist agenda is being challenged by monthslong farmer protests and a fresh wave of the pandemic.
Re-elected for a second five-year term in 2019, Modi’s grip on power is under no threat, but the elections in the two eastern states are the first since the farmers launched protests that have been mainly in the north, around the capital Delhi, according to Reuters.
Top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Modi, have campaigned heavily to win West Bengal for the first time and dislodge the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, as well as retain power in northeastern Assam state.
It was the first phase of voting in both states, and the results won’t be known for months.
The BJP has for years been accused of stoking religious polarization and discriminating against minorities, and faces stiff challenges in both states with nearly 30% Muslim population. Nationwide, Muslims comprise nearly 14% of the 1.4 billion people, while Hindus make up 80%.
Manmohan Singh, a former prime minister and an opposition Congress party leader, criticized the BJP's Hindu nationalism, saying that society is being divided on the basis of religion, culture and language. "The basic rights of the common man are being denied and there is an atmosphere of tension and fear."
For all the concerns over the coronavirus, politicians out on the campaign trail often showed scant regard for social distancing, but as people waited in long queues outside polling centres in West Bengal on Saturday, security personnel and election workers handed out masks, sanitizers and gloves.
Modi and his home minister Amit Shah campaigned aggressively for their Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal, luring local politicians away from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, whose firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee has been chief minister since 2011.
“The main contending parties are strong this time and it is difficult to gauge the mood,” Mahadeb Hansda, a retired school teacher told Reuters by telephone from Purulia district, as he waited to cast his vote.
The BJP currently controls a dozen of India’s 28 states, with alliance partners in several others. But it has never won power in West Bengal, once a communist bastion for more than three decades, and should the BJP defeat Banerjee, analysts say, it would deal a body blow to the broader opposition.
The country’s fourth most populous state, with 90 million people, is key to controlling the upper house of the federal parliament whose members are elected by state assemblies.
In neighbouring Assam, where a BJP-led alliance is seeking a second term, brisk polling began early. Women, clad in traditional dresses, lined up outside voting centres before the polls opened at 7am.
“I want to cast my vote early and be free for the rest of the day,” said Malini Gogoi, a housewife from the northern Assam town of Biswanath.
Top BJP leaders, including Modi, have been campaigning heavily to win West Bengal and dislodge the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, as well as retain power in northeastern Assam and expand the party’s influence in the southern states.
In his first public rally after announcement of dates for the eight-phase Assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday went full-throttle against the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal.
Modi’s party looks set to retain power in the northeastern Assam state for a second term, but failed to pick up any significant gains there or make inroads in two southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
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