NEW DELHI (AP) – Voters in four Indian states and one Union territory voted on Tuesday in an election seen as a test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which faces a bitter fight to stop the latest wave of coronavirus cases in the country.
News channels showed voters wearing masks as officials carried out temperature checks and attempted to maintain physical distance in the lines.
Modi on Twitter called on people, especially young voters, to “vote in record numbers,” at the opening of the ballot boxes in the states of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Territory. administered by the federal government of Pondicherry.
The elections are seen as crucial for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to gain a foothold in the northeast and the south.
In the eastern states of West Bengal and Assam, where the third phase of elections is underway, Modi’s party is banking on its strong Hindu nationalist ideology to win votes. But the contest is hotly watched in West Bengal, where Modi and his top leaders campaigned to wrest power from the state’s chief fire minister, Mamata Banerjee.
West Bengal, one of the most populous states in India, was never ruled by Modi’s party. A defeat for Banerjee, a strong critic of Modi, would deal a blow to the country’s already weak opposition.
In southern India, Modi’s party is vying for third place in Kerala, currently run by a government led by the Communist Party. And in the legislative elections in Tamil Nadu, he allied himself with a powerful regional party as a junior partner.
Modi’s overall popularity remains unmatched in India, but his party has faced tougher challenges than expected in recent state polls.
The election results will be announced on May 2.
The vote comes as coronavirus cases in India are increasing faster than anywhere else in the world.
India reported 96,982 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours on Tuesday. The death toll has increased by 446, bringing the death toll to 165,547 since the start of the pandemic.
The latest outbreak of infections is worse than the peak of last year. India now has a seven-day moving average of more than 73,000 cases per day and has reported 12.7 million cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic, the highest after the United States and Brazil.
The government has stepped up its vaccination campaign in recent weeks, but vaccines have been slow to reach nearly 1.4 billion people in India.
Experts say this surge is in part blamed on the growing disregard for social distancing and the wearing of masks in public spaces.
During the election campaign, politicians often showed little respect for social distancing and attended gigantic rallies with tens of thousands of people without masks.