Last day of elections in India, in stifling hot weather

India concluded its six-week long general election process on Saturday, with voting, amid a heatwave, in the spiritual capital of Hinduism, a stronghold of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his nationalist campaign.

The prime minister winning a third term is the most likely outcome, thanks in large part to his image as a defender of India's majority religion. The results are expected on Tuesday.

The opposition accused Modi of making comments that stigmatized Muslims and fueled inter-religious tensions in the midst of the election process.

Varanasi (or Benares), the 73-year-old prime minister's northern constituency, is the spiritual capital of Hinduism, and where worshipers from all over India come to cremate their dead loved ones on the banks of the Ganges River.

The city is one of the last cities where people vote, through a gradual election process, and often in very heated conditions. The office closes at 18:30 local time (Indian Standard Time), or 13:00 GMT. Vote counting will take place on Tuesday, but polls are expected to give an indication of who won.

Temperatures reached 45 degrees at noon on Saturday, a temperature that has been exceeded in many cities in recent days.

“It's so hot,” said Chinta Devi, who came to vote at eight in the morning. For several days in this heat-stricken Hindu city, “the streets and markets were empty”, he told AFP.

In the (eastern) state of Bihar, ten election workers were killed on Thursday while setting up a polling station.

– “Feeling of pride” –

Varanasi is the city where public support for the policy of strengthening ties between Hinduism and power, led by Modi, is strongest.

“Modi is clearly winning,” Vijayendra Kumar Singh, who works at one of the many hotels at the popular pilgrimage site, told AFP.

“There's a sense of pride in everything he does, and that's why people voted for him.”

Narendra Modi has given his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) two landslide victories in 2014 and 2019, thanks in large part to his appeal to Hindu voters.

This year, he grandly inaugurated a magnificent temple dedicated to the god Rama in Ayodhya on the site previously occupied by a centuries-old mosque that was destroyed by a group of Hindu fanatics in 1992.

The construction of the temple, long sought after by supporters of the Hindu religion, was celebrated across the country, with live broadcasts and street parties.

The inauguration, as well as a number of other signals in favor of India's majority religion over the past decade, have sparked concern among the Muslim minority, which numbers more than 200 million people.

Narendra Modi himself made controversial remarks against Muslims during his campaign, calling them “infiltrators”. He also accused the opposition coalition, formed by two dozen parties from various parties, of wanting to redistribute India's wealth to Muslims.

Janesar Akhtar, a Muslim clothing manufacturer from Varanasi, believes the BJP's nationalist campaign is a distraction from the country's unemployment problem. “Workshops are closed here and the Modi government is busy with the temple and mosque policy,” the 44-year-old told AFP.

Analysts have long predicted a Modi victory against the opposition alliance, which has yet to nominate a candidate for prime minister.

Several legal probes launched against his opponents and a tax probe that this year froze the bank accounts of the Congress, India's largest opposition party, have further strengthened his power.

Western democracies have largely turned a blind eye to threats to rights and freedoms in the country, defending their valuable ally in the face of China's increasing aggressiveness.

Narendra Modi's image has been strengthened at home by the growing diplomatic and economic clout of India, which surpassed Britain as the world's fifth-largest economy in 2022.

“As an Indian, I feel he brought a lot of respect and prestige to India during his tenure,” Shikha Aggarwal, 40, told AFP after leaving the polls on Saturday.

“I voted for the growth and development of my country,” said Brijesh Taksali, before adding “there is only one leader I know… Narendra Modi.

Indian voters cast ballots in seven phases over six weeks to facilitate the mammoth logistical operation of holding elections in the world's most populous country.

Serena Hoyles

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