Voters in four Indian states and a union territory are casting their ballots in elections seen as a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which is facing a tough fight against the country’s latest surge in coronavirus cases.
News channels on Tuesday showed voters wearing masks as officials checked temperatures and tried to maintain physical distancing in lines.
Modi on Twitter asked people, particularly young voters, to “vote in record numbers” as the polls opened in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu states and the federally administered territory of Puducherry.
The elections are seen as crucial for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking to gain a foothold in the northeast and south.
In the eastern West Bengal and Assam states, where the third phase of elections is under way, Modi’s party is banking on its strong Hindu nationalist ideology to draw votes.
Keen contest in West Bengal
But the contest is keenly watched in West Bengal, where Modi and his top leaders have campaigned heavily to wrest power from the state’s firebrand chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.
West Bengal, one of India’s most populous states, has never been ruled by Modi’s party. A defeat for Banerjee, a strong Modi critic, would deal a blow to the country’s already weak opposition.
The state, home to about 90 million people, has seen thousands killed in decades of political violence and the current campaign has triggered deadly clashes between supporters of the BJP and Banerjee’s TMC party.
The TMC has accused the BJP of attempting to import divisive sectarian politics into the state, which has a large Muslim minority.
On Tuesday, shots were fired outside several polling stations during clashes in areas outside the state capital Kolkata, leaving at least 20 people injured, police said.
West Bengal election is spread over eight phases, culminating on April 29. The results will be declared on May 2.
The northeastern state of Assam, home to 32 million people, was also holding the last of the three phases on Tuesday with the BJP vying to hold on to power.
The state is polarised along ethnic and religious lines, with immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh one of the biggest campaign issues.
A controversial “citizenship list” released in Assam in 2019 left off almost two million people unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims, a process many fear the BJP wants to roll out nationwide.
In the southern Kerala state, the governing Left Democratic Front, a coalition including two communist parties, is fighting to retain power against an alliance led by Congress, the BJP’s main national rivals.
In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the BJP has allied with a powerful regional party as junior partner, while an alliance led by MK Stalin – named by his father after the late Soviet ruler – is aiming to win power with his DMK party.
Puducherry, a small former French colony previously known as Pondicherry, has been rocked recently by political defections and resignations leading to the collapse of its Congress-led government.
While Modi’s overall popularity remains unmatched in India, his party has faced tougher-than-expected challenges in recent state polls.
Tuesday’s vote comes as coronavirus cases in India are rising faster than anywhere else in the world.
India reported 96,982 new coronavirus infections in the last 24 hours on Tuesday. Fatalities rose by 446, raising the death toll to 165,547 since the pandemic began.
The latest surge in infections is worse than last year’s peak. India now has a seven-day rolling average of more than 73,000 cases per day and has reported 12.7 million virus cases since the pandemic began, the highest after the United States and Brazil.
The government has intensified its vaccination drive in recent weeks, but the shots have been slow to reach India’s nearly 1.4 billion people.
Experts say the surge is blamed in part on growing disregard for social distancing and mask-wearing in public spaces.
While on the campaign trail, politicians often showed little regard for social distancing and attended mammoth gatherings with tens of thousands of maskless people.