Reuters Bengaluru/New Delhi
Millions of voters across swaths of southern India cast ballots early yesterday in the second phase of a mammoth, staggered general election, as sporadic violence flared in the east and Jammu and Kashmir.
More than 155mn people were eligible to vote in 95 constituencies in 12 states yesterday, with results of the election to the 545-member parliament expected on May 23.
In focus are the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where the main opposition Congress party and its allies need to win big if they hope to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from securing a second straight term.
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have run an aggressive campaign, playing to their nationalist, Hindu-first base and attacking rivals they accuse of appeasing minorities.
Critics say such divisive rhetoric threatens India’s secular foundations.
“Communal polarisation is the biggest issue for me,” said Rakesh Mehar, who voted in the technology hub of Bengaluru, which is the capital of Karnataka. “And the growing intolerance in the country is what worries me the most.”
Yet it may be tough for the BJP to repeat its 2014 feat of sweeping victories in six northern states that delivered 70% of all its seats, helping to clinch a landslide majority, said academic Neelanjan Sircar.
“You can never expect you’ll do that again,” added Sircar, a political science professor at Ashoka University near the capital, New Delhi. “Those seats that you lose, you’ll have to make up somewhere.”
The BJP would be looking to make gains in Karnataka, he added.
Congress, which is focusing on concerns about growing joblessness and farmers’ distress, is staking its chances on a promise of generous handouts to the country’s poorest families.
“People are talking about national issues,” said Manjunath Munirathnappa, a voter in Bengaluru, who hoped lawmakers would resolve infrastructure woes, such as traffic congestion and inadequate water supply.
“But only when they fix the local issues will there be progress.”
The election, in which almost 900mn people are eligible to vote, began last week and ends next month, with vote counting set for May 23 and results expected the same day.
Sporadic violence was reported in Kashmir, where separatists have called an election boycott and West Bengal, which has a history of election clashes.
Police fired teargas to disperse stone-throwers in Srinagar, where thousands of troops have been deployed to guard the vote, although turnout was just 5% by 1pm.
“There has been stone pelting by protesters in at least 40 places,” said a senior police officer who sought anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Police in Darjeeling also fired tear gas at protesters who complained they had not been allowed to vote, said the top district official, Arvind Kumar Mina.
“They had blocked a highway and had to be dispersed,” he added.
In the neighbouring constituency of Raiganj, unidentified people attacked the car of the communist candidate at a voting station he visited to check accusations of voting malpractice, the party said.
Elections in West Bengal have historically been marred by violence among the communists who ran the state for decades, the main opposition Congress and a powerful regional group, all trading charges of vote-rigging and intimidating supporters.
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