Phase 5 of India election held in Gandhi bastions, Ladakh, Ram Temple town

Voting held for 49 seats across six states and two union territories, the fewest of the constituencies going to the polls in seven-phase election.

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

Monday’s phase had the fewest constituencies going to the polls with 89.5 million voters eligible to vote for 49 seats in the lower house of parliament across six states and two union territories.

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

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Gandhi family bastions

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

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

Rae Bareli has returned 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 four times in parliament but decided not to contest this year.

“I am handing 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 as she made an emotional appeal to voters during a rally in the family borough with Rahul and her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Smriti Irani, the federal minister for women and child development, is contesting from adjacent Amethi, where she defeated Rahul Gandhi in 2019. The Congress has fielded longtime 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 on the border with China and Pakistan, Buddhist monks and Muslims voted to demand statehood and protection of their culture in an overwhelmingly Hindu nation.

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

At the time, Buddhists in the high-altitude region celebrated, expecting they would soon enjoy greater rights. But the federal government has yet to fulfil its promise to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of India’s Constitution, which allows Indigenous tribal people to make their own laws and policies.

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

All three candidates running for its seat – held by Modi’s BJP – are promising to ensure change happens to protect the local culture and land.

Voters, including Buddhist monks in ochre robes, lined up to cast their ballots at polling stations in Leh, the territory’s main town, as the surrounding mountains are still snow-capped even as much of India swelters in a heatwave.

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

Umila Bano, a 59-year-old Muslim, said she voted for a candidate “who I think will actually work for getting us included in the Sixth Schedule”.

“Ladakh needs it,” she said.

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

Test for Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics

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

On Monday, the northern city swarmed with voters, many of them Hindu devotees, lining up at polling stations in scorching heat.

Shachindra Sharma said 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 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 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 issue in this election,” she said.

Analysts said it is not clear whether Modi’s Hindu nationalist pitch 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 muzzle dissent are glaring problems that the BJP has no answers to,” said Amarnath Agarwal, a political analyst.

He 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”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies