India elections: Fourth phase of polling begins as religious fault lines deepen

117 million voters to take part in polling for 96 seats in 10 states and territories

A man shows his ink-stained finger after voting at a polling station, during the fourth general election phase on May 13, 2024. — Reuters
  • 117mn voters to partake in polling for 96 seats in 10 territories.
  • Polling began on April 19, ballots to be counted on June 4.
  • Concerns over low turnout due to voter disinterest in elections.

HYDERABAD/BHUBANESWAR: Millions of Indians are taking part in the fourth phase of the country's elections which commenced on Monday as religious and economic divisions deepen due to increased rhetoric.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking a rare third straight term, the voting in the world's most populous nation commenced on April 19 whereas the ballots are set to be counted on June 4.

The BJP is going up an alliance of more than two dozen opposition parties, including its main rival Congress.

"I appeal to all to vote for a decisive government," said Amit Shah, Modi's close aide and country's Home Minister, as voting began.

Polling will be held for 96 seats in 10 states and territories on Monday, with 177 million people eligible to cast their ballots. A large number of seats are in the southern and eastern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha where the BJP is not as strong as other parts of the country.

Turnout is being closely watched as marginally lower numbers in the first three phases have raised concerns about voter disinterest in an election without a strong, central issue. 

The impact of hot weather on voting is also being watched with maximums in many parts of the country around 40°C or higher.

The lower turnout has raised doubts over whether the BJP and its allies can win the landslide predicted by opinion polls.

Analysts say the lower turnout prompted Modi to change the tack of his campaign after the first phase, shifting focus from his economic record to accusing the Congress of planning to extend welfare benefits to minority Muslims at the expense of disadvantaged tribal groups and Hindu castes.

Congress has denied making any such promise and has said Modi is rattled by the turnout, which the BJP denies.

About 80% of India's 1.4 billion people are Hindus but it also has the world's third-largest Muslim population of about 200 million people. Surveys suggest voters are most concerned about unemployment and price rise.

Led by Rahul Gandhi, Congress is pitching for better representation and welfare programmes for India's poor and disadvantaged groups, stating that wealth inequality has worsened during Modi's 10-year term, a charge rejected by the government.

The opposition INDIA alliance led by Congress got a shot in the arm ahead of Monday's vote when the Supreme Court gave temporary bail to Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the national capital territory of Delhi and a key opposition leader, allowing him to campaign.

Kejriwal is a fierce critic of Modi and was arrested a month before the elections in a liquor policy graft case, sparking accusations Modi's government was seeking to cripple the opposition through investigations and arrests.

Kejriwal denies the corruption allegations while the government says it does not influence law enforcement agencies.