Voting resumes with India-occupied Kashmir poised to oppose Modi

Published May 13, 2024
Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, in Pulwama on May 13. — AFP
Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, in Pulwama on May 13. — AFP

India’s six-week election resumed on Monday including in India-occupied Kashmir (IoK), where voters are expected to show their discontent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cancellation of the disputed territory’s semi-autonomy and the security crackdown that followed.

Modi remains popular across much of India and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win the poll when it concludes early next month.

But his government’s decision in 2019 to bring IoK under its direct rule — and the subsequent clampdown — have been deeply resented among the region’s residents, who will be voting for the first time since the move.

“What we’re telling voters now is that you have to make your voice heard,” said former chief minister Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference party is campaigning for the restoration of the region’s former semi-autonomy.

“The point of view that we want people to send out is that what happened… is not acceptable to them,” he told AFP.

‘Referendum’

Violence has dwindled since IoK was brought under direct rule five years ago, a move that saw the mass arrest of local political leaders and a months-long telecommunications blackout to forestall expected protests.

Modi’s government says its cancelling of IoK’s special status has brought “peace and development”, and it has consistently claimed the move was supported by Kashmiris.

 An Indian security force personnel stands guard outside a polling booth during the fourth phase of India’s general election in Srinagar on May 13. — Reuters
An Indian security force personnel stands guard outside a polling booth during the fourth phase of India’s general election in Srinagar on May 13. — Reuters

But his party has not fielded any candidates in the valley for the first time since 1996, and experts say the BJP would have been roundly defeated if it had.

“They would lose, simple as that,” political analyst and historian Sidiq Wahid told AFP last week, adding that Kashmiris saw the vote as a “referendum” on Modi’s policies.

The BJP has appealed to voters to instead support smaller and newly created parties that have publicly aligned with Modi’s policies.

But voters are expected to back one of two established Kashmiri political parties calling for the Modi government’s changes to be reversed.

“I voted for changing the current government. It must happen for our children to have a good future,” civil servant Habibullah Parray told AFP.

“Everywhere you go in [India-held] Kashmir today you find people from outside in charge. Everyone wants that to change.”

Nearly one billion voters

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

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

Turnout so far has declined significantly from the last national poll in 2019, according to election commission figures.

Analysts have blamed widespread expectations that Modi will easily win a third term and hotter-than-average temperatures heading into the summer.

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

Rhetoric over religion, inequality sharpens

Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, at Karjat in Maharashtra state on May 13. — AFP
Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, at Karjat in Maharashtra state on May 13. — AFP

“I appeal to all to vote for a decisive government,” said Amit Shah, Modi’s powerful aide and the country’s interior affairs minister, as voting began.

Polling will be held for 96 seats in 10 states and territories on Monday, with 177m people eligible to cast their ballots. A large number of seats are in the southern and eastern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha where the BJP is not as strong as other parts of the country.

Turnout is being closely watched as marginally lower numbers in the first three phases have raised concerns about voter disinterest in an election without a strong, central issue. The impact of hot weather on voting is also being watched with maximums in many parts of the country around 40 degrees Celsius or higher.

The lower turnout has raised doubts over whether the BJP and its allies can win the landslide predicted by opinion polls.

Analysts say the lower turnout prompted Modi to change the tack of his campaign after the first phase, shifting focus from his economic record to accusing the Congress of planning to extend welfare benefits to minority Muslims at the expense of disadvantaged tribal groups and Hindu castes.

Congress has denied making any such promise and has said Modi is rattled by the turnout, which the BJP denies.

About 80 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people are Hindus but it also has the world’s third-largest Muslim population of about 200m people. Surveys suggest voters are most concerned about unemployment and price rises.

Led by Rahul Gandhi, Congress is pitching for better representation and welfare programmes for India’s poor and disadvantaged groups, stating that wealth inequality has worsened during Modi’s 10-year term, a charge rejected by the government.

The opposition INDIA alliance led by Congress got a shot in the arm ahead of Monday’s vote when the Supreme Court gave temporary bail to Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the national capital territory of Delhi and a key opposition leader, allowing him to campaign.

Kejriwal is a fierce critic of Modi and was arrested a month before the elections in a liquor policy graft case, sparking accusations Modi’s government was seeking to cripple the opposition through investigations and arrests.

Kejriwal denies the corruption allegations while the government says it does not influence law enforcement agencies.

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