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Phase 5 of elections in India will be held in Gandhi bastions, Ladakh, Ram Temple city

Indians have voted in the fifth phase of a massive general election, the world’s largest with nearly 970 million eligible voters, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a rare third term.

In Monday’s phase, the fewest constituencies went to the polls with 89.5 million voters eligible to vote for 49 seats in the lower house of Parliament spread across six states and two union territories.

The seven-phase staggered voting began on April 19 and has already decided the fate of 428 of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha. The results will be announced on June 4.

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Gandhi family bastions

Two districts that are strongholds of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of the main opposition Indian National Congress party went to the polls on Monday. Family scion Rahul Gandhi is contesting against Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, besides Wayanad in Kerala, which has already voted.

India allows candidates to contest multiple constituencies, but they can only represent one. If he wins both, he would choose one, and the other would hold a new election.

Rae Bareli has returned as a Congress candidate in 17 of the 20 elections held there since 1952, mostly members of the Gandhi family. Rahul’s mother and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi has represented the seat in Parliament four times but decided not to contest this year’s elections.

‘I hand over my son to you. Just as you made me yours, please treat him as one of your own. He will not disappoint you,” Sonia Gandhi said on Friday while making an emotional appeal to voters at a rally in the family compound with Rahul and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Smriti Irani, the federal minister for women and child development, is contesting from neighboring Amethi, where she defeated Rahul Gandhi in 2019. The Congress has pitted long-time family loyalist Kishori Lal Sharma against Irani.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and elects 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the most of any state. In 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies won 64 seats, including Amethi and Rae Bareli.

Ladakh votes for statehood

In Ladakh, bordering China and Pakistan, Buddhist monks and Muslims voted to demand a state and protect their culture in a predominantly Hindu nation.

Ladakh was part of Indian-administered Kashmir before Modi’s government scrapped its semi-autonomous status in 2019 and made both union territories, imposing direct rule.

At the time, Buddhists in the highland area celebrated, expecting that they would soon enjoy more rights. But the federal government has yet to fulfill its promise to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which allows indigenous tribes to make their own laws and policies.

Nearly half of the people in the sparsely populated desert region of Ladakh are Muslim, and about 40 percent are Buddhist, making it one of the least Hindu places in the country. Residents have long demanded their own legislature, constitutional protection of local culture and measures to defend its fragile environment.

All three candidates running for the seat – held by Modi’s BJP – vow to ensure change happens to protect local culture and the country.

Voters, including Buddhist monks in ochre-colored robes, lined up to cast their votes at polling stations in the area’s main city, Leh, as the surrounding mountains remain blanketed in snow as much of India swelters a heatwave.

“We need protection,” said Stanzin Norphel, 74, after casting his vote. “This government has destroyed Ladakh.”

Umila Bano, a 59-year-old Muslim, said she voted for a candidate “who I believe will actually work to get us included in the Sixth Program.”

“Ladakh needs it,” she said.

Former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir Omar Abdullah contested from Baramulla, one of the three seats in the Muslim-majority valley region of Kashmir.

Test for Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics

In January, Modi inaugurated a Hindu temple built on the site of a destroyed Mughal-era mosque in the politically crucial state of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

On Monday, the northern city was teeming with voters, including many Hindu supporters, queuing at polling stations in the scorching heat.

Shachindra Sharma said that while the Ram 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 of electing a government. Is there any guarantee that a party advocating the Ram Temple will provide security and lead the country to progress?” Sharma asked.

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

“I will vote for the party that built the Ram temple because Lord Ram is the biggest problem in this election,” she said.

Analysts said it is not clear whether Modi’s Hindu nationalist tone can carry him to victory as Indians face rising unemployment and inflation.

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

He said the agitation over the Hindu temple may not have translated into a major political issue for the ruling party and that this is “clearly reflected in the lack of interest among voters, reflected in a remarkably low turnout”.

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