India votes in fifth phase of election including in city where PM opened controversial Hindu temple

Millions of Indians across 49 constituencies are casting ballots as the country’s six-week-long election enters its final stages
Supporters of Samajwadi Party and Indian National Congress shout slogans and wave flags at an election rally by Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) leaders Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Supporters of Samajwadi Party and Indian National Congress shout slogans and wave flags at an election rally by Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) leaders Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, India, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

AYODHYA, India (AP) — Millions of Indians across 49 constituencies began casting ballots on Monday as the country's six-week-long election enters its final stages with voting also being held in northern Ayodhya city, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a controversial Hindu temple on the site of a razed mosque.

Monday’s polling in the fifth round of multi-phase national elections across six states and two union territories is crucial for Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as it includes some of its strongholds in states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The polls in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya are seen as a litmus test for Modi's Hindu-first politics, as he has hailed the opening of the Hindu temple as his government's crowning achievement.

The staggered election will run until June 1 and nearly 970 million eligible voters, more than 10% of the world's population, will elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years. The votes are scheduled to be counted on June 4.

Modi last year opened the controversial Hindu temple built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque razed by Hindu mobs in 1992. The temple was built at an estimated cost of $217 million and its opening was seen as a political triumph for the populist leader who is seeking to transform the country from a secular democracy into a Hindu state. It also fulfilled a longstanding demand of the majority Hindus.

Modi and his party, who have mixed religion and politics, hope that Hindu sentiment and fervor over the opening of the temple will help catapult the prime minister to a record third successive term. But experts say the issue may not be enough to rally the region’s Hindu majority toward the BJP, particularly at a time when many Indians say they are affected by rising unemployment and inflation.

“Issues like unemployment, inflation, lack of security and the government’s attempts to muzzle dissent are glaring problems that the BJP has no answers to,” said Amarnath Agarwal, a political analyst.

Agarwal said excitement over the Hindu temple may not have translated into a significant political issue for the ruling party and it is “evident from the lack of interest among voters, reflected in a notably low turnout.”

With two more phases of polling left, overall voter turnout has been lower than in previous elections. Some poll experts have suggested that some of Modi’s party core supporters were staying away.

Most polls show Modi and his party leading in the race for seats in the lower house of Parliament over their main challenger, a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties. However, it faces stiff resistance from the opposition, which appears to have tapped into discontent against Modi's government.

Shachindra Sharma, who votes Monday, said while the temple was a matter of faith for many Hindus like him, he would vote for a party that upholds constitutional values.

“Why should the Ram Temple be a guiding factor for voters? Lord Ram is a matter of faith, while voting is a democratic process to elect a government. Is there any guarantee that a party advocating for the Ram Temple will provide security and lead the country towards progress?" Sharma said.

His wife, Renuka Sharma, disagreed, arguing that the temple remains a crucial deciding factor in polls.

“I will vote for the party that built the Ram Temple because Lord Ram is the biggest issue in this election," she said.

Modi's party has repeatedly reiterated the temple's centrality to the election narrative. He has also increasingly used anti-Muslim rhetoric in his campaign speeches.

Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, in an election rally last week, said the choice between “devotees of Ram” and“anti-Ram forces” is the defining theme of the national election, referring to the opposition parties.

“You should vote for devotees of Ram because they are the people who built Ram Temple for you,” he said.

Modi has also capitalized on the emotive appeal of the temple among Hindus and sometimes falsely accused opposition parties of attempting to overturn the court’s verdict that allowed its construction. On Friday, he claimed that if the opposition comes to power it will raze the temple.

Monday’s polling will also see opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, running for office from Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh state.

Gandhi also ran for office from Wayanad in southern India, which has already voted. India allows candidates to contest multiple constituencies but they can represent only one.

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Banerjee reported from Lucknow, India.