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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

160 million Indians cast ballots in intense heat

Voters in 12 states and one union territory are participating in the second phase of the general election

Over 160 million Indians are casting their votes on Friday despite an intense heat wave that is sweeping the country. The second of seven polling phases, the vote is taking place in 88 parliamentary constituencies across 12 states and the Jammu and Kashmir union territory. The elections, which will take place until June 1, will decide on who will occupy the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha).

The focus is on Kerala, southern Indian state, where Rahul Gandhi, de facto leader of the Congress, India’s largest opposition party, is contesting from the Wayanad constituency. The incumbent is facing off against Annie Raja of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Both parties are part of the INDIA alliance, which is challenging the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram has seen one of the most intriguing contests for a parliamentary seat. Shashi Tharoor, who is seeking a fourth term as MP, is being challenged by BJP leader Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a minister in Modi’s cabinet.

The polls are being held as the country battles an intense heat wave; temperatures have reached near-record highs in some areas. The lower-than-expected turnout in the first phase of polling last week (66%) has been at least partially attributed to the scorching weather. Election officials have set up a taskforce to review heat waves and humidity five days before each polling phase for any “concerning developments,” and will take measures if necessary.

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According to the commission which governs India’s election process, 39.1% of the voters had cast their ballots by 3pm in the afternoon. Unlike during the first phase of the election, held on April 19, no major incidents of violence have been reported.

It is not just the seasonal heat or the number of eligible voters that have made this year’s election unique. The polling is being held against the backdrop of debates about the redistribution of wealth in the nation of 1.4 billion, which has the world’s fifth-largest economy. Modi’s party has repeatedly accused the Congress of harboring plans to hand over people’s wealth to “minorities” – with Muslims being the largest minority in the country.

On Thursday, the Election Commission issued a notice to the BJP over recent remarks by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he allegedly referred to Muslims as “infiltrators,” according to the Hindustan Times. The report noted that the poll body has sought a response from the BJP to the complaints filed by the opposition parties and civil society groups.

However, BJP president J. P. Nadda doubled down, despite the attacks, on Friday. “The Congress says that the first right to the resources of the country is that of Muslims. Whereas PM Narendra Modi says that the first right to the resources of the country is that of the poor,” Nadda said.

The controversy over wealth distribution was worsened by another episode, in which US-based Congress party leader Sam Pitroda suggested considering a US-style inheritance tax in India, wherein a percentage of a deceased person’s wealth would be handed over to the state. Modi launched a scathing attack against the proposal and reiterated claims that the Congress wants to “snatch” away people’s property. The Congress has rejected these claims.