Monday June 24, 2024

India elections: Modi's struggling rival Gandhi votes as sixth phase commences

Indian election officials raise low voter turnout concerns in sixth stage due to worsening heat

By Reuters
May 25, 2024
People wait in lines to cast their votes at a polling station during the sixth phase of Indias general election in New Delhi, India on May 25, 2024. — Reuters
People wait in lines to cast their votes at a polling station during the sixth phase of India's general election in New Delhi, India on May 25, 2024. — Reuters 

NEW DELHI: Key Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi voted Saturday as the country’s sixth phase of major elections commenced, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rivals accusing his government of unjustly targeting them in criminal probes.

Modi, 73, remains roundly popular after a decade in office and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win a third term next month after a poll hit by recurrent early summer heatwaves.

His prospects have been further bolstered by several criminal investigations into his opponents, sparking concerns from UN rights chief Volker Turk and rights groups over the poll's fairness.

Gandhi, the most prominent leader of India’s opposition Congress party, cast his ballot at a polling station in New Delhi, where temperatures were forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit).

A son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, Gandhi paused after voting to take a selfie with his mother Sonia but did not speak to crowds of reporters.

The scion of a dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, he was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence saw him disqualified from parliament until the verdict was suspended by a higher court.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, 55, leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi party, who was detained in March in a long-running graft case, was due to vote later Saturday.

The Supreme Court bailed Kejriwal earlier this month and he returned to the campaign trail, urging Indians to vote against what he called a nascent "dictatorship".

"Modi has started a very dangerous mission," he said soon after his release. "Modi will send all opposition leaders to jail."

Congress is spearheading an opposition alliance of more than two dozen parties competing jointly against Modi, including the Aam Aadmi party.

Kejriwal’s organisation grew out of an anti-corruption movement a decade ago — its name means Common Man’s party — and has been elected to office in the Delhi region and the state of Punjab, but has struggled to establish itself as a nationwide force.

In February, authorities froze several Congress bank accounts as part of a running dispute over income tax returns filed five years ago, a move Gandhi said had severely impacted the party’s ability to contest the election.

"We have no money to campaign, we cannot support our candidates," the 53-year-old told reporters in March.

Modi’s political opponents and international rights campaigners have long sounded the alarm on India’s shrinking democratic space.

US think-tank Freedom House said this year that the BJP had "increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents".

Heatwave 'red alert'

India is voting in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging an election in the world’s most populous country.

Turnout is down several percentage points from the last national poll in 2019, with analysts blaming widespread expectations of a Modi victory as well as hotter-than-average temperatures heading into the Indian summer.

India’s weather bureau this week issued a heatwave "red alert" for Delhi and surrounding states where tens of millions of people were casting their ballots on Saturday.

The India Meteorological Department warned of heightened health risks for infants, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.

Extensive scientific research shows climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense, with Asia warming faster than the global average.

More than 968 million people are eligible to vote in the Indian election, with the final round of polling on June 1 and results expected three days later.