Millions vote in India's grueling election with Prime Minister Modi's party likely to win third term

Millions of Indians are voting in the next-to-last round of a grueling national election in the searing summer heat

NEW DELHI (AP) — Millions of Indians voted Saturday in the next-to-last round of a grueling national election with a combined opposition trying to rattle Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign for a third-consecutive term for himself and his Hindu nationalist party.

Many people lined polling stations before the start of voting at 7 a.m. to avoid the blazing sun at the peak of Indian summer. The temperature soared to 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in the afternoon in the Indian capital.

“This (election) is also like a festival, so I don’t have a problem voting in the heat,” said Lakshmi Bansal, a housewife.

Saturday's voting in 58 constituencies, including seven in New Delhi, will complete polling for 89.5% of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The remaining 57 seats will be decided on June 1, wrapping up a six-week election. The votes will be counted on June 4.

President Droupadi Murmu and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar were among the early voters. Opposition Congress party leaders, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, also voted in New Delhi.

Mehbooba Mufti, a former top elected official of Indian-controlled Kashmir, held a protest with her supporters Saturday claiming that scores of her party workers were detained by police to prevent them from voting. Mufti, the chief of the People’s Democratic Party who is contesting the parliamentary election in the Anantnag-Rajouri district, said she complained to election officials.

In West Bengal state, workers belonging to the All India Trinamool Congress party blocked the car of Agnimitra Paul, one of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party candidates, as she proceeded to vote in the Medinipur constituency. The two parties are rivals in the state and their activists often clash on the streets.

Trinamool leader and state’s top elected official Mamta Banerjee accused the BJP of launching an attack that left one activist dead on Friday in the Purba Medinipur district. Several houses and shops were burned in the area, the Press Trust of India news agency quoted Banerjee as saying.

Suvendu Adhikari, a BJP leader in the state, accused Trinamool members of attacking and killing an activist on Thursday, an accusation rejected by his rivals, PTI reported.

The election is considered one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test Modi’s political dominance. If Modi wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.

Most polls predict a win for the BJP, which is up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Congress and powerful regional parties. But a less-than-expected turnout in the previous five rounds of voting has left some doubts about the BJP's projected margin of victory.

"When the polls began it felt like a one-horse race, with Modi leading from the front. But now we are seeing some kind of shift," political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said. "The opposition is doing better than expected and it appears that Modi's party is rattled. That's the reason you see Modi ramping up anti-Muslim rhetoric to polarize voters."

Kidwai said the opposition had challenged Modi by centering its campaign narrative on social justice and rising unemployment, making the contest closer than expected.

Modi ran his campaign like a presidential race, a referendum on his 10 years of rule. He claimed to help the poorest with charity, free health care, providing toilets in their homes, and helping women get free or cheap cooking gas cylinders.

But he changed tack after a poor turnout in the first round of the election and began stirring Hindu nationalism by accusing the Congress party of pandering to minority Muslims for votes.

Hindus account for 80%, and Muslims nearly 14%, of India’s over 1.4 billion people.

Manish Bhatia, a New Delhi voter, said that "politics on the basis of caste and religion is dangerous for the country," adding that voting should be based on how candidates perform.

Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10% of the world’s population — were eligible to elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years.

Voters’ relative apathy has surprised some analysts. In the five rounds of polling, turnout ranged between 62.2% to 69.16% — averaging 65.9%. By comparison, India’s 2019 national election registered the highest-ever turnout — 67.11%. Modi’s BJP won 303 seats in Parliament in 2019.

Modi's inauguration of a massive Hindu temple for the god Rama, his massive roadshows and big public rallies raised the BJP's hopes of a massive surge in voters' support.

The current prime minister came to power in 2014, dislodging the Congress party that governed the country for nearly 55 years after India won independence from British colonialists in 1947.

Before the election, the opposition INDIA alliance was seen bickering, but it has since held together, particularly after two chief ministers of two opposition-controlled states were sent to jail on corruption charges. Both deny the accusations.

One of them — New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal — has since been released on bail and returned to the campaign trail.

In March, Gandhi completed a 6,713-kilometer (4,171-mile) walk across the country, starting in the violence-hit northeastern state of Manipur, to raise awareness on issues of poverty, unemployment, and democracy with voters.

“The walk helped Gandhi boost his image as a serious politician among the voters, and that is helping the opposition,” Kidwai, the analyst, said.

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Associated Press writers Sheikh Saaliq and video journalists Shonal Ganguly and Piyush Nagpal contributed to this report.

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