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HARIDWAR: Women stand in a queue to cast their votes at a polling station as voting starts in the first phase of India's general election in Haridwar, in the country's Uttarakhand state on April 19, 2024. — AFP photos
HARIDWAR: Women stand in a queue to cast their votes at a polling station as voting starts in the first phase of India's general election in Haridwar, in the country's Uttarakhand state on April 19, 2024. — AFP photos

India’s Hindu faithful vote for ‘civilizational glory’

Modi the favorite as millions begin casting their ballots

HARIDWAR: India began voting Friday in a six-week election with an all but assured victory for Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as a weakened opposition is pushed to the sidelines. A total of 968 million people are eligible to take part in the world’s biggest vote — a staggering logistical exercise that critics say follows a concerted effort to delegitimize rivals.

A long and winding queue was patiently assembled outside a polling station in the Hindu holy city of Haridwar, even before the booths opened. Nestled between the Himalayan foothills and the banks of the Ganges river, the ancient city of Haridwar is ringed by temples and a key pilgrimage site for India’s majority faith.

It is also a stronghold of support for Modi, whose Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has brought religion to the forefront of politics in defiance of the country’s secular political constitution. “Modi had ensured our country as well as our faith is secure,” 59-year-old Hindu ascetic Uday Bharti told AFP outside a polling station. “We have come here to make sure Modi keeps doing his good work.”

Elderly Hindu ascetic Ram Bhakt, 96, braved searing heat Friday as he hobbled through the narrow laneways the city. “I am voting for India’s civilizational glory,” said the wizened nonagenarian, clad in a simple saffron robe and resting his weight on a wooden walking stick, his wrinkled forehead smeared with vermilion and ash.

“Under Modi, our country has become what we sages had always hoped for,” he told AFP. Modi is widely expected to resoundingly win this year’s national elections in India, which began on Friday and continues in phases until June 1. His enduring popularity in India has been forged in large part by his appeal to the Hindu faithful. This year, he presided over the inauguration of a grand temple to Ram, one of the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque razed by Hindu zealots.

A sadhu or an Hindu holy man walks after casting his vote at a polling station.
A sadhu or an Hindu holy man walks after casting his vote at a polling station.

At the glitzy ceremony attended by Bollywood celebrities and cricket stars, he told an audience of thousands that India was “creating the genesis of a new history”. Construction of the temple fulfilled a long-standing demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated across India with back-to-back television coverage and street parties.

Shiv Shankar Giri, a young man serving in a Hindu monastic order in Haridwar, told AFP that he had cast his vote for “the one who had brought Ram”. “We are all voting for the person who has made Hinduism strong,” said the 28-year-old. “We are voting for Modi.”

‘Our faith is secure’

The growing alignment between India’s politics and its majority faith has been cheered on around the country in the decade since Modi took office. But the rising tide of Hindu nationalist fervor has also left the country’s 220 million-strong Muslim community and other minorities fearful. Uttarakhand state, home to Haridwar and the source of the Ganges, is considered a geographical cornerstone of Hinduism, and has smoldered with sectarian tensions. Hardline activist groups loosely affiliated with the BJP have issued calls for Muslims to be expelled from the state.

In another part of Uttarakhand, several Muslims were killed in February after clashes with their Hindu neighbors, prompted by municipal authorities demolishing a mosque they said had been constructed illegally. For Mukesh Dubey, the priest of a small temple in Haridwar, the Modi government’s championing of his faith was a distraction from more pressing issues facing India, with millions of young university graduates out of work. Sops to the faith amounted to nothing if “people do not have jobs and food to fill their stomachs”,” the 38-year-old told AFP.

Modi’s party is nonetheless expected to coast to victory in Haridwar, where in the last election five years ago the BJP candidate won 250,000 more votes than his nearest rival. “Modi had ensured our country as well as our faith is secure,” Uday Bharti, 59, told AFP outside a polling station. “We have come here to make sure Modi keeps doing his good work.”

Voting on Friday was mostly without incident, but one polling station in conflict-hit Manipur was ransacked after unknown assailants let off gunfire outside. The far-flung state has fractured along ethnic lines after fighting broke out last year between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki community, displacing thousands.—AFP

Voting in the first phase closed at 6 pm India time (1230 GMT), with six more rounds between April 26 and June 1 to come. Ballots will be counted all at once on June 4 and are usually announced on the same day. — AFP

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