Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

Voters queue up to cast their ballot outside a polling station during the first phase of voting for the India’s general election, in Dugeli village of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh state on April 19, 2024. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

  • Polling takes place in phases over the next six weeks, with results expected on June 4
  • Over 968 million people are registered to vote, with 168.6 million casting ballots on Friday

NEW DELHI: Indian voters headed to the polls on Friday for the first phase of the world’s biggest general election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aiming for a rare third consecutive term.

More than 968 million people are registered to vote, with polling taking place over the next six weeks, as results are expected on June 4.

After April 19, the other voting dates will be April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25 and June 1, with some states completing the process on a single day, and others having it spread out in several phases.

Friday’s polling was held in 21 states and union territories, including the most populous ones such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, as well as smaller northeastern states and the northern Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Kashmir, this is the first election since its special autonomous status and statehood were scrapped through the Indian government’s controversial constitutional amendment in 2019.

Chief Election Commissioner of India Rajiv Kumar told reporters on Friday that 168.6 million people were expected to cast their ballots on Friday.

“The preparations started, actually, two years back. Wide range of preparations … It’s a tremendous exercise,” he said.

MAIN CONTENDERS

More than 2,600 political parties are registered in the marathon election and 543 contested seats in the lower house of Parliament. The party or coalition that wins at least 272 is going to form the government.

Modi is targeting 400 seats for the National Democratic Alliance led by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in power since 2014.

He is challenged by an alliance of two dozen opposition parties — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, led by the Congress Party, which has ruled the country for close to 45 years since its independence in 1947.

The key leader of the opposition coalition is Rahul Gandhi — the son of Rajiv Gandhi, a grandson of Indira Gandhi, and a great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, all of whom served as prime ministers of India.

While the opposition is trying to appeal to Indian youth with promises to tackle unemployment, free education and medical facilities, the BJP has deployed the same tactics as in previous polls — by mobilizing voters through majoritarian Hindu sentiment, despite constitutional provisions that make it a secular state.

Opinion polls show Modi as frontrunner, with 48 percent of respondents in the most recent survey released by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies last week naming him as their choice for the prime minister. Gandhi was second, preferred by 27 percent.

“Modi has created an image of a powerful leader, a leader who is not only popular in India but outside too. He has also created an image of not pandering to Muslim communities in India … This image of a leader who does not appease the Muslim sentiments appeals to the Hindu masses. Politics of polarization helps Modi to build an image and aura among a large section of the Hindu voters,” Prof. Venkat Narayan, political analyst and commentator, told Arab News.

“Then the use of social media and the mainstream media is also there to create an image and broaden Modi’s appeal. The media plays a great role in creating this image, they are soft towards Modi and do not ask critical questions.”

If Modi wins the election, he will become the second prime minister, after Nehru, to succeed in three consecutive polls.

“Modi is leading in the polls as he has created an image of doing a lot for different sections of the society. Besides, he projects himself as squeaky clean. People also think that as he has no children, he has no reason to be corrupt or be on the take,” Sanjay Kapoor, analyst and editor of the English-language political magazine Hardnews, told Arab News.

“There are other reasons for his popularity, which include adroit use of media and social media that control all criticism against him. Then there are issues of raising India’s global profile and pursuing an independent foreign policy.”

FUTURE FOREIGN POLICY

Whoever wins the election, the foreign policy direction is likely to remain broadly unchanged, except for India’s orientation toward Israel and Palestine.

Support for Palestine and Palestinian statehood was once an integral part of India’s foreign policy, but in recent years, under Modi’s rule, New Delhi has become closer to Tel Aviv, despite civil society protests breaking out across the country against Israel’s deadly war on Gaza.

“If the INDIA alliance comes to power, then we may see a change in our policy towards Israel and Palestine. The INDIA alliance is sympathetic to Palestinians,” Kapoor said.

“We expect that the INDIA alliance will also restore ties with neighbors like Pakistan, (and) revive SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).”

The member states of SAARC — a regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia — are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The last biennial SAARC summit was hosted by Nepal in 2014. Pakistan was to host the summit in 2016, but it was stalled after India refused to participate, following an attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

VOTERS’ CONCERNS

According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey, unemployment emerged as the top concern for 27 percent of respondents.

Some 62 percent also said it has been more difficult to find a job in the last five years — during Modi’s second term in office.

“The biggest concern remains inflation and unemployment. The possibility of getting a job decreases if you study more. People are forced to leave India in search of jobs. Some have even gone as far as Russia and Israel,” Kapoor said. “The situation is really dismal.”

Rising prices and inflation were also a major issue — the top concern for 23 percent of the people surveyed by the CSDS.

“Women and the middle class are concerned about the rising prices. Modi is trying to divert attention from these main issues by talking about religion and temples,” said Shashi Shekhar Singh, associate professor at Satyawati College at the University of Delhi.

The CSDS pre-poll also revealed that despite the ruling party’s narrative promoting Hindu nationalist dominance to establish a majoritarian state in India, only 11 percent of respondents saw India as solely for Hindus.

But there were fears the reality on the ground could change if the BJP tried to amend India’s liberal and democratic constitution.

“Indian secularism and the very idea of a plural democracy is at stake,” Singh said.

“There is a fear that if the BJP comes to power with the thumping majority, the liberal and secular democracy will breathe its last. The BJP might lead the nation further down the path of a Hindu majoritarian state.”


33 Muslims arrested for attacking 2 Christian men on allegations of desecrating Qur’an in Pakistan

Updated 43 sec ago
Follow

33 Muslims arrested for attacking 2 Christian men on allegations of desecrating Qur’an in Pakistan

LAHORE, Pakistan: Police in eastern Pakistan arrested dozens of Muslim men and charged them with attacking a Christian father and son on allegations of desecrating pages of Islam’s holy book, officials said Monday.
The mob went on a rampage Saturday after locals saw burnt pages of the Qur’an outside the two Christian men’s house and accused the son of being behind it, setting their house and shoemaking factory on fire in the city of Sargodha in Punjab province, said senior police officer Asad Ijaz Malhi. They also beat up the son.
Malhi said police forces rescued the two wounded men and transported them to a hospital where they were in stable condition, and that at least 33 men were arrested following multiple police raids. Authorities were chasing others who may be involved in the attack, he said.
The blaze fully incinerated the factory and parts of the house, residents and the police said.
Punjab police said in a statement it beefed up security at churches.
Blasphemy accusations are common in Pakistan and under the country’s blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or Islamic religious figures can be sentenced to death. While no one has been executed on such charges, often just an accusation can cause riots and incite mobs to violence, lynching and killings.
The latest violence, however, brought back memories of one of the worst attacks on Christians in Pakistan in August 2023, when thousands of people set churches and homes of Christians on fire in Jaranwala, a district in Punjab province.
Muslim residents at the time also claimed they saw two men desecrating the Qur’an.

Indian police arrest hospital boss after six babies die in fire

Updated 1 min 56 sec ago
Follow

Indian police arrest hospital boss after six babies die in fire

  • Blaze broke out at the New Born Baby Care hospital in New Delhi’s Vivek Vihar area late Saturday evening
  • The narrow two-story hospital building was squeezed between a row of homes, without space on either side
NEW DELHI: Indian police said Monday they had arrested a doctor and the owner of an unlicensed hospital where six newborn babies died in a fire in a crowded ward without fire exits.
The blaze broke out at the New Born Baby Care hospital in New Delhi’s Vivek Vihar area late Saturday evening.
In the crucial first minutes, it was bystanders who spotted the fire and braved the blaze to rescue the newborns inside.
“We didn’t even name her... I never even held her in my arms,” Anjar Khan, whose 11-day-old daughter died in the blaze, was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times.
Vinod Sharma, who lost his day-old baby boy, blamed the hospital authorities for the tragedy.
“He had a problem with breathing. The doctor had said that he will be fine in a few days,” Sharma was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper.
“We didn’t know that the hospital would kill him.”
Fires are common in India due to poor building practices, overcrowding and a lack of adherence to safety regulations.
The narrow two-story hospital building was squeezed between a row of homes, without space on either side, making it hard for fire engines to reach.
“We were trying to control the fire, but there was no way to enter the building and rescue the 12 babies who were trapped,” local fire officer Atul Garg told reporters.
Senior police officer Surendra Chaudhary told AFP that the hospital did “not have a fire exit system.”
Its license had expired in March and the owner had crammed into the ward more than twice the number of beds it previously had permission for.
“The hospital had permission for up to five beds but they had installed more than 10 beds,” he said.
“In view of all this, we have made the arrests.”
Five babies pulled out from the fire are still recovering in another hospital.
The blaze in the hospital on Saturday broke out just hours after a separate fire at an amusement park in India’s western state of Gujarat.
The toll from that fire rose to 28 on Monday, police said.
The blaze — which ripped through a center with a bowling alley and other games crowded with youngsters — was triggered by welding work on the ground floor, chief fire officer Ilesh Kher told reporters.
“The CCTV footage clearly shows that a spark from the welding work fell on a stack of corrugated cardboard sheets below, causing the fire,” Kher said.
“This spread very fast as the material was highly flammable.”
The corpses were so badly burned they have not been identified so far.
Police have charged seven people with culpable homicide in connection to that fire.
The two fires came as northern India was gripped by intense heat, with temperatures in Delhi hitting 46.8° Celsius on Saturday, according to the India Meteorological Department.

China to host Egypt’s El-Sisi, Arab leaders this week

Updated 27 May 2024
Follow

China to host Egypt’s El-Sisi, Arab leaders this week

  • Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li said President Xi Jinping would attend the forum and deliver a keynote address on Thursday

BEIJING: China will host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as well as a number of other Arab leaders in Beijing this week, its foreign ministry said Monday.
The leaders will from Tuesday to Saturday “pay state visits to China and attend the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
Also among the delegation will be Bahrain’s King Hamad, Tunisian President Kais Saied and the United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li said President Xi Jinping would attend the forum and deliver a keynote address on Thursday.
Xi would also “hold talks with the four heads of state respectively to exchange views on bilateral relations and regional and international issues of common concern,” Deng said.
The forum would aim to deepen “consensus between China and Arab countries,” Deng said, and would be co-chaired by top diplomat Wang Yi and his Mauritanian counterpart.
They would also “issue a common voice between China and Arab countries on the Palestinian issue,” he said.
China has sought to build closer ties with Arab states in recent years, and last year brokered a detente between Tehran and its long-time foe Saudi Arabia.
During a tour of the Middle East in January, top diplomat Wang met El-Sisi in Cairo, saying relations had reached their “best level” in history, according to a foreign ministry readout.
And the meeting with Arab leaders in Beijing comes as China seeks to position itself as a mediator in the conflict between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel.
Wang’s trip to Egypt saw the two countries release a joint statement on the conflict, expressing support for a “comprehensive, just and lasting settlement.”
China has historically been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and supportive of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And Xi has called for an “international peace conference” to resolve the fighting.
Israel’s has has killed at least 35,984 people in Gaza since Oct. 7, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Millions without power as cyclone Remal pounds Bangladesh and India

Updated 27 May 2024
Follow

Millions without power as cyclone Remal pounds Bangladesh and India

  • One person killed in Kolkata after concrete chunks fell on him during storm’s peak, police say
  • Bangladesh moved about 800,000 people from port areas of Mongla, Chittagong since Sunday morning

DHAKA/KOLKATA: Strong winds and heavy rain pounded the coastal regions of Bangladesh and India as severe cyclone Remal made landfall late on Sunday, leaving millions without electricity after power poles fell and some trees were uprooted by gusty winds.

The storm crossed the coastal regions of Bangladesh’s Mongla port and the adjoining Sagar Islands in India’s West Bengal state with wind speed measuring up to 135 kmph (about 84 mph), the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said.

The storm will gradually weaken into a cyclone during the morning on Monday and then move northeast and gradually weaken further, the IMD said in its latest weather update.

The landfall process began around 9 p.m. local time in India on Sunday and continued for about five hours, the regional meteorological office in Kolkata said.

One person was killed in the major metropolitan city of Kolkata when concrete chunks fell on him during the peak of the storm, police said. Roofs of thatched huts were blown away while mud houses were flattened in the coastal areas of both countries as authorities waited to ascertain the full scale of losses.

The low-lying coasts of South Asian neighbors Bangladesh and India have experienced frequent severe storms in recent years as climate change forces a rise in sea surface temperatures. Remal is the year’s first cyclone in the region.

Bangladesh moved about 800,000 people from the port areas of Mongla and Chittagong and nine coastal districts to storm shelters from Sunday morning. As many as 110,000 people were also taken to shelters in India.

Dhaka set up nearly 8,000 cyclone shelters and mobilized 78,000 volunteers ahead of the storm while the Indian navy said it had kept ships, aircraft, divers and medical supplies on standby for deployment if required.

While early warnings and timely evacuations helped both countries avert major casualties from the storm, there was a heavy toll on power infrastructure.

Authorities in Bangladesh shut down electricity supply to many areas in advance to avoid accidents while many coastal towns were left in the dark as fallen trees and broken lines disrupted supply, power ministry officials said.

“We have no electricity since night, my mobile battery will run out anytime. By the grace of Allah, the cyclone was not as violent as we thought,” said Rahat Raja, a resident in the coastal district of Satkhira in Bangladesh.

Reports of at least 356 uprooted electricity poles and damage to scores of transformers were received during the first hour of the landfall process, Arup Biswas, the minister for power in West Bengal government, said.

More than 50 international and domestic flights had to be canceled in Kolkata city as operations were suspended from Sunday noon. Bangladesh also suspended operations at Mongla and Chittagong ports.

“Normal airport operations will resume from 9 am,” said C Pattavi, the director of the Kolkata airport, adding that the airport’s operational areas were clear from waterlogging.

River embankments in the Sundarbans delta, the largest mangrove forest in the world, shared by India and Bangladesh, also suffered heavy damage with high tides breaching protective embankments at many places.

Kolkata, like the state’s coastal belt, was also lashed by heavy rains with water logging in many areas, television footage showed. At least six trees were uprooted, which blocked roads, while there were also reports of wall collapses, police said.

The cyclone also brought heavy rains to Bangladesh capital Dhaka, causing flooding of roads and severely impacting commuters.


China’s premier hails ‘new beginning’ with US-allied South Korea, Japan

Updated 27 May 2024
Follow

China’s premier hails ‘new beginning’ with US-allied South Korea, Japan

  • Li Qiang met South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in three-way talks
  • The three nations are trying to manage rising distrust amid the rivalry between Beijing and Washington and tensions over Taiwan

SEOUL, South Korea: Chinese Premier Li Qiang praised what he called a restart in relations with Japan and South Korea as he met their leaders for the first three-way talks in four years on Monday in Seoul, striving to revive trade and security dialogues hampered by global tensions.

Li, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will adopt a joint statement on six areas including the economy and trade, science and technology, people-to-people exchanges and health and the aging population, Seoul officials said.
They may also agree to resume three-party free trade agreement negotiations, which have been stalled since 2019, according to Japanese media reports.
At the summit, Li called for the comprehensive resumption of trilateral cooperation with an open attitude and transparent measures, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
He said relations between the three nations had not changed despite profound global transformations.
“Our meeting today, first in more than four years, is both a restart and a new beginning,” Li said, according to a post on X by China’s foreign ministry.
China and US-allied South Korea and Japan are trying to manage rising distrust amid the rivalry between Beijing and Washington and tensions over democratically ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
Yoon and Kishida have charted a closer course with each other and to Washington, embarking on unprecedented three-way cooperation with the United States on military and other measures.
Monday’s summit comes a day after the leaders met separately for bilateral talks with each other.
In those meetings, Li and Yoon agreed to a diplomatic and security dialogue and resume free trade talks, while Kishida and the Chinese premier discussed Taiwan and agreed to hold a new round of bilateral high-level economic dialogue.
Yoon also asked China to play a constructive role with its partners in North Korea, which is expanding its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
North Korea has notified Japan of its plan to launch a rocket carrying a space satellite between May 27 and June 4, the Japan Coast Guard said on Monday.
Officials from the United States, Japan, and South Korea held phone talks in response to the notice and demanded that North Korea cancel the launch because it would use ballistic missile technology in violation of the UN resolutions, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.

Trade relations
The trade relationship between China, South Korea and Japan has evolved over the past decade to become increasingly competitive.
Those ties have been further tested by US calls for its allies to shift their supply chains for key products, such as semiconductors, away from China.
Officials and diplomats from South Korea and Japan have set a low bar for the summit, saying it is uncertain whether there will be major announcements but that just gathering will help the three countries revive and reinvigorate their strained relations.
The three leaders are also due to attend a forum with top business executives.
South Korea, Japan and China held 16 rounds of official negotiations over a three-way FTA after they first kicked off in 2012.
At their last negotiation in November 2019, the three countries agreed on liberalization at a level higher than the Regional Comprehensive Economic partnership (RCEP), of which they are all members, encompassing areas from trade of goods and services to investment, customs, competition and e-commerce.