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India votes in second phase as contest heats up

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India began voting on Friday in the second phase of its massive elections, with prime minister Narendra Modi and his rivals ramping up their campaigns on issues such as religious discrimination, affirmative action, and taxes.

In this phase, 88 out of 543 parliamentary seats were up for grabs, with 160 million eligible voters across 13 states and federal territories.

Almost one billion people are eligible to vote in the seven-phase general elections, which commenced on April 19 and will conclude on June 1, with vote counting scheduled for June 4.

Modi, aiming for a third consecutive term, has centred his campaign on his economic achievements, welfare policies, national pride, Hindu nationalism, and personal popularity. Surveys suggest he is likely to secure a comfortable majority.

His opponents have formed an alliance of over two dozen parties, promising increased affirmative action and more benefits.

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The campaign intensified after the first phase of voting on April 19. Modi accused Congress of favouring minority Muslims, diluting affirmative action, and proposing an inheritance tax.

“I will vote for BJP. Muslims will get a lot of benefits if Congress comes to power, and I don’t want taxpayers’ money to go for the benefit of any one community,” said Shree Hari SS, 23, a voter in Bengaluru, to Reuters.

However, some voters prioritised addressing unemployment, inflation, and high taxation, urging the new government to focus on these issues.

“Promises should be fiscally prudent. I am okay with subsidies, but the government should do a better job of finding a balance and understanding how much they will cost the exchequer,” said Kareemulla Basha, 47, a software engineer from Bengaluru, to Reuters.

Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president and the party’s prominent figure, was among the 1,200 candidates contesting on Friday.

“Your vote will decide whether the next government will be of ‘a few billionaires’ or of ‘140 crore Indians’,” Gandhi posted on X (formerly Twitter) as voting commenced, referring to India’s population of 1.4 billion.

“It is the duty of every citizen to step out of their homes today and become a ‘soldier of the constitution’ and vote to protect democracy,” he added.

Gandhi is seeking re-election from Wayanad in Kerala, facing opponents including Annie Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and BJP’s K Surendran.

In 2019, Gandhi won from Wayanad by a significant margin, although he lost his second seat to BJP in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress party, which suffered a significant defeat in 2014 and a reduced tally in 2019, is hoping for improved performance, especially in Karnataka.

The Election Commission and political parties are concerned about voter turnout due to the summer heat and wedding season. Turnout in the first phase fell to around 65% from nearly 70% in 2019.

(Reuters)

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