India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

People arrive to cast their votes at a polling station during the first phase of general election, in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India on April 19, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 19 April 2024
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India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

  • Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members to lower house of Parliament 
  • The staggered elections will run until June 1, votes will be counted on June 4

NEW DELHI: Millions of Indians began voting Friday in a six-week election that’s a referendum on Narendra Modi, the populist prime minister who has championed an assertive brand of Hindu nationalist politics and is seeking a rare third term as the country’s leader.
The voters began queuing up at polling stations hours before they were allowed in at 7 a.m. in the first 21 states to hold votes, from the Himalayan mountains to the tropical Andaman Islands. Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10 percent of the world’s population — will elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years during the staggered elections that run until June 1. The votes will be counted on June 4.
One voter said she came early to avoid the summer heat later in the day.
Prime Minister Modi urged people to vote in record numbers. “I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers. After all, every vote counts and every voice matters!” he said in a message on the social media platform X.
This election is seen as one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test the limits of 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 Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who are up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.
It’s not clear who will lead India if the opposition alliance, called INDIA, wins the election. Its more than 20 parties have not put forward a candidate, saying they will choose one after the results are known.
The BJP is facing the toughest challenge in southern Tamil Nadu state with 39 seats where the voting is being held on Friday. The BJP drew a blank in 2019 and won one seat in the 2014 elections with the region dominated by two powerful regional groups, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Modi focussed on the state this time and visited it more than a dozen times, holding several rallies and roadshows.
P. Chidambaram, an opposition Congress party leader and the country’s former finance minister, said after voting in Tamil Nadu state that people would not vote for the BJP in the state as “It is imposing one language, one culture, one system and one kind of food.”
The voting also is taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur that was ravaged by a near-civil war for a year caused by fighting between the majority Meitei and tribal Kuki-Zo people. Mobs have rampaged through villages and torched houses.
The election authority has set up voting stations for nearly 320 relief camps where more than 59,000 men, women and children are living. The state stands divided between a valley controlled by the Meiteis and the Kuki-dominated hills.
More than 150 people were killed and over 60,000 displaced. The voting for two seats will be completed on April 26.
In the 2019 elections, the BJP and its allies had won 39 of 102 seats where the voting is taking place on Friday. These include Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal states.
The election comes after a decade of Modi’s leadership, during which the BJP has consolidated power through a combination of Hindu-first politics and economic development.
Modi has ratcheted up Hindu nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, and has sought to present himself as a global leader. His ministers tout him as the steward of a surging India, while his supporters celebrate his campaign promise to make India a developed nation by 2047, when it marks 100 years of independence.
But while India’s economy is among the world’s fastest-growing, many of its people face growing economic distress. The opposition alliance is hoping to tap into this, seeking to galvanize voters on issues like high unemployment, inflation, corruption and low agricultural prices that have driven two years of farmers’ protests.
Critics warn that Modi has turned increasingly illiberal and that he could use a third term to undermine India’s democracy. His Hindu nationalist politics, they argue, has bred intolerance and threatens the country’s secular roots.
The alliance has promised to arrest the democratic slide it says India has witnessed under Modi’s rule. They accuse Modi of sidelining elected ministers in favor of trusted bureaucrats and using tax authorities and the police to harass critics and opposition parties.
“Modi has a very authoritarian mindset. He doesn’t believe in democracy. He doesn’t believe in Parliamentarianism,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, who has written about Modi and the Hindu right.
Modi insists that India’s commitment to democracy is unchanged. He told a Summit for Democracy meeting in New Delhi in March that ‘“India is not only fulfilling the aspirations of its 1.4 billion people, but is also providing hope to the world that democracy delivers and empowers.’’
The Indian leader enjoys vast popularity among India’s 1.4 billion people. His BJP dominates in Hindi-speaking northern and central parts of India, and is now trying to gain a foothold in the east and south to capture a two-thirds majority. Modi and other BJP candidates have repeatedly vowed to take at least 400 seats.
The party hopes for a landslide win powered by its popular welfare programs, which it says have improved access to clean toilets, health care and cooking gas, as well as providing free grain to the poor. Moves like the construction of a controversial temple to Ram on the site of a demolished mosque, and the scrapping of the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir’s former autonomy, may resonate with supporters who hail him as the champion of the Hindu majority.
“Any party that comes back for a third term, and with a brute majority, is a scary prospect for democracy,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator.
Modi’s two terms have seen civil liberties in India come under attack and it implementing what critics say are discriminatory policies. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened, violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority, and government agencies have arrested opposition politicians in alleged corruption cases.
The BJP has denied its policies are discriminatory and says its work benefits all Indians.


Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

Updated 4 sec ago
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Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

Student speaker Shruthi Kumar said “this semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” she said to cheers and applause
“I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus”

CAMBRIDGE: A group of graduates walked out of the Harvard commencement chanting “Free, Free Palestine” after weeks of protests on campus.
School officials announced Wednesday, the day before Thursday’s graduation, that 13 Harvard students who participated in a protest encampment would not be able to receive degrees alongside their classmates.
Some students chanted “Let them walk, let them walk walk,” during Thursday’s commencement, referring to allowing those 13 students to get their degrees along with fellow graduates.
Harvard University held its commencement address Thursday following a weekslong pro-Palestinian encampment that shut down Harvard Yard to all but those with university ties and roiled tensions on the campus.
Those tensions were ticked up a notch on Wednesday when school officials announced that 13 Harvard students who participated in the encampment won’t be able to receive degrees alongside their classmates. Some students chanted “Let them walk, Let them walk,” during commencement.
Student speaker Shruthi Kumar said “this semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” she said to cheers and applause.
She said she had to take a moment to recognize “the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 who will not graduate today,” Kumar said to prolonged cheers and clapping. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.”
Over 1,500 students had petitioned, and nearly 500 staff and faculty had spoken up, all over the sanctions, she said.
“This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principals,” she said. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard do you hear us?”
Those in the encampment had called for a ceasefire in Gaza and for Harvard to divest from companies that support the war.
Also on Thursday, the leaders of Northwestern University and Rutgers University are expected to testify at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about concessions they gave to pro-Palestinian protesters to end demonstrations on their campus. The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, also was scheduled to appear at the latest in a series of hearings looking into how colleges have responded to the protests and allegations of antisemitism
The decision by the school’s top governing board follows a recommendation Monday by faculty members to allow the 13 to receive their degrees despite their participation in the encampment.
Harvard’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, however said that each of 13 have been found to have violated the university’s policies by their conduct during the encampment protest.
“In coming to this determination, we note that the express provisions of the Harvard College Student Handbook state that students who are not in good standing are not eligible for degrees,” the corporation said in a written statement.
The statement left open the possibility of an appeals process saying the corporation understands “that the inability to graduate is consequential for students and their families” and supports the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ intention to provide an expedited review of requests for appeal.
“We care deeply about every member of our community — students, faculty, staff, researchers, and alumni — and we have chosen a path forward that accords with our responsibilities and reaffirms a process for our students to receive prompt and fair review,” the statement added.
Supporters of the students said the decision not to allow them to receive degrees at commencement violated a May 14 agreement between interim President Alan Garber and the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition that would have allowed the students to graduate.
Protesters against the war between Israel and Hamas voluntarily dismantled their tents after they said university officials agreed to discuss their questions about the endowment, bringing a peaceful end to the kinds of demonstrations that were broken up by police on other campuses.
The group issued a statement late Wednesday saying the decision jeopardizes the post-graduation lives of the 13 students.
“By rejecting a democratic faculty vote, the Corporation has proved itself to be a wholly illegitimate body, and Garber an illegitimate president, accountable to no one at the university,” the group said.
“Today’s actions have plunged the university even further into a crisis of legitimacy and governance, which will have major repercussions for Harvard in the coming months and years,” the group said,
There was a noticeable presence of police officers around the campus Thursday mixing with soon-to-be-graduates, their family members and sidewalk flower sellers.
A small plane circled above trailing an Israeli and US flag. A truck was parked outside the campus with an electronic billboard with the names and images of some of the pro-Palestinian protesters under the banner “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
At Drexel University in Philadelphia, protesters packed up their belongings and left a pro-Palestinian encampment Thursday after the school announced a decision to have police clear the encampment. A wave of pro-Palestinian tent encampments on campuses has led to over 3,000 arrests nationwide.

Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats

Updated 59 min 33 sec ago
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Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats

  • The reasons for the outage, which had not caused any change in the radiation level, were being investigated
  • The main 750 kilovolt (kV) “Dniprovska” power line went down at 13.31 local

MOSCOW: Russia said on Thursday that the main power line supplying the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) in Ukraine had gone down, but that there was no threat to safety and the plant was being supplied via a backup line.
The six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, held by Russia and located close to the front line of the conflict in Ukraine, are not in operation but it relies on external power to keep its nuclear material cool and prevent a catastrophic accident.
The Russian management said on their official channel on the Telegram app that the reasons for the outage, which had not caused any change in the radiation level, were being investigated.
It said the main 750 kilovolt (kV) “Dniprovska” power line went down at 13.31 local (1031 GMT), while the 330 kV “Ferosplavnaya” line was supplying power to the plant now.
The main “Dniprovska” power line also went down for almost five hours on March 22, highlighting what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said were “ever present dangers to nuclear safety and security” from the Russia-Ukraine war.
Russia and Ukraine have each accused the other at various times of shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is Europe’s largest.
IAEA has said that the ZNPP has been experiencing major off-site power problems since the conflict began in early 2022, exacerbating the nuclear safety and security risks facing the site.


US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say

Updated 23 May 2024
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US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say

  • This will be the fourth installment of military aid for Ukraine since Congress passed a long-delayed foreign aid bill late last month
  • Russia has sought to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while the war-torn country waits for the arrival of more US assistance

WASHINGTON: The United States is expected to announce an additional $275 million in military aid for Ukraine on Friday as Kyiv struggles to hold off advances by Russian troops in the Kharkiv region, two US officials say.
This will be the fourth installment of military aid for Ukraine since Congress passed a long-delayed foreign aid bill late last month and comes as the Biden administration has pledged to keep weapons flowing regularly and to get them to the front lines as quickly as possible.
The package includes high mobility artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS, as well 155 mm and 105 mm high-demand artillery rounds, according to the two US officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details of the aid package before the public announcement.
It follows a monthly gathering Monday of about 50 defense leaders from Europe and elsewhere who meet regularly to coordinate getting more military aid to Ukraine. At this latest meeting, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine was in a “moment of challenge” due to Russia’s new onslaught on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. He pledged to keep weapons moving “week after week.”
Russia has sought to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while the war-torn country waits for the arrival of more US assistance, which was delayed for months in Congress. Ukrainian forces have been pushed backward in places, while Russia has pounded its power grid and civilian areas.
In the month since President Joe Biden signed the $95 billion foreign aid package, which included about $61 billion for Ukraine, the US has announced and started to send almost $1.7 billion in weapons pulled from Pentagon stockpiles.
It’s also announced $6 billion in funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. That pays for longer-term contracts with the defense industry and means that the weapons could take many months or years to arrive.
With this latest package, the US has now provided almost $51 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022.


First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024

Updated 23 May 2024
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First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024

  • About 5,000 Filipino Muslims are set to perform Hajj this year
  • Muslims make up 10 percent of majority Catholic Philippine population

MANILA: The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos sent off the first group of Hajj pilgrims on Thursday, marking the beginning of the annual pilgrimage season for Muslims from the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the nearly 120 million Philippine population, with most living on the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the country’s south, as well as in the central-western province of Palawan.

With the Hajj this year expected to start on June 14 and end on June 19, many pilgrims depart early to make the most of the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

The Philippines’ first group of 150 pilgrims left early on Thursday morning from the main airport in Manila, making the first leg of their journey to Madinah via Oman.

“The Hajj is not merely a journey undertaken for personal fulfillment, it is a profound act of devotion symbolizing unity, equality and submission to the will of the Almighty Allah,” NCMF Secretary Sabuddin Abdurahim said during the sendoff ceremony.

NCMF is the body governing Muslim affairs in the Philippines, in charge of organizing the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

“As we bid farewell to our beloved pilgrims embarking on the sacred journey to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, my heart is filled with prayers for your safety, security and the smoothest of journeys,” Abdurahim said.

“I fervently pray that this year’s Hajj is free from any hurdles of challenges, ensuring a profound spiritual experience for each of you.”

About 5,000 Muslims have confirmed their travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage this year, the NCMF said.

Hapidz Yusop, a pilgrim from Sulu, said that he was fulfilling his dream of doing the sacred pilgrimage.

“It’s been my lifelong dream. I’ve been planning to do the Hajj for a long time, but I don’t have the means, I don’t have the money. But by the mercy of God and the help of our mayor in Talipao, I’m finally here,” he told Arab News, referring to how his arrangements for Hajj were sponsored by the local government in Talipao.

“It feels like we are born again, that we will be cleansed of all of our sins and be born again. May God give us mercy,” Yusop said.

Rahyan Tulawi Amaraja, a 30-year-old nurse from Sulu’s Jolo island, will embark on this year’s Hajj with her parents.

“It has been my aspiration since I was a child to perform my pilgrimage. Fortunately, I will perform my Hajj journey with my parents, which is one of my aspirations, too,” she told Arab News.

“I am overwhelmed with joy,” she said. “For this Hajj journey, I wish to have Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, and to be able to perform it well and successfully.”


Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment

Updated 23 May 2024
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Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment

  • News outlets reported that police gave protesters a warning to clear the encampment and protesters left
  • “An unauthorized encampment that involves large numbers of people unaffiliated with Drexel trespassing on our campus is illegal,” Fry said

PHILADELPHIA: Protesters packed up their belongings and left a pro-Palestinian encampment at Drexel University on Thursday after the school announced a decision to have police clear the encampment.
University President John Fry said in a statement that he decided to have campus police and public safety officers join Philadelphia police in clearing the encampment as peacefully as possible.
News outlets reported that police gave protesters a warning to clear the encampment and protesters left. Protesters didn’t immediately comment.
Fry said the university is committed to protecting the community members’ right to assemble peacefully and express their views, but he has the responsibility and authority to regulate campus gatherings to ensure safety and fulfill the mission to educate students.
“An unauthorized encampment that involves large numbers of people unaffiliated with Drexel trespassing on our campus is illegal,” Fry said. “The language and chants coming from this demonstration, underscored by protesters’ repugnant ‘demands,’ must now come to an end.”
Protesters gathered their belongings as dozens of officers on bicycles arrived around 5:20 a.m., but in less than a half hour only a few items remained on the Korman Family Quad where the 35-tent encampment had been, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“The campers picked up their belongings for the most part and left by their own free will,” Philadelphia Police Sgt. Eric Gripp said.
The encampment had persisted despite Fry’s threat earlier this week to have the encampment cleared. Fry said Tuesday that classes would be held virtually for a third day on Wednesday after administrators tried to open a line of communication to the protesters but were rebuffed. News outlets reported that the university announced Wednesday night that the campus would return to normal operations Thursday.
In his statement early Thursday, Fry said previous requests for protesters to disperse had been ignored, but he was asking Drexel affiliates to leave the encampment so police could “escort any remaining trespassers off our campus.”
A wave of pro-Palestinian tent encampments on campuses has led to over 3,000 arrests nationwide.
On Thursday, the leaders of Northwestern University and Rutgers University are expected to testify at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about concessions they gave to pro-Palestinian protesters to end demonstrations on their campus. The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, also was scheduled to appear at the latest in a series of hearings looking into how colleges have responded to the protests and allegations of antisemitism.