April 19, 2021

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India: Voting begins in Assam and West Bengal state elections

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Polls open in two eastern states seen as critical for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Voting has begun in Assam and West Bengal in state elections that will show how support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding up following a coronavirus-stricken year and months of protests by farmers against his agricultural reforms.

Re-elected for a second five-year term in 2019, Modi’s grip on power is under no threat, but the elections in the two eastern states on Saturday are the first since the farmers launched protests that have been mainly in the north around the capital, New Delhi.

It was the first phase of voting in both states and the results will not be known for months.

For all the concerns over the coronavirus, politicians out on the campaign trail often showed scant regard for social distancing.

But as people waited in long queues outside polling centres in West Bengal on Saturday, security personnel and election workers handed out masks, sanitisers and gloves.

The campaign has been marked by violence with Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party claiming that more than 100 of its workers have been killed over the last two years, with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party making similar claims.

Activists from both parties have been shot or hacked to death, their bodies sometimes hung from trees.

Voters queue to cast their ballots in Koliabor in Assam [Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP]

The BJP currently controls a dozen of India’s 28 states, with alliance partners in several others. But it has never won power in West Bengal, once a communist bastion for more than three decades.

The country’s fourth most populous state, with 90 million people, is key to controlling the upper house of the federal parliament whose members are elected by state assemblies.

Neighbouring Assam, home to 32 million people, is polarised along ethnic and religious lines, with immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh one of the biggest campaign issues.

A “citizenship list” in Assam state in 2019 left off almost two million people who were unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims, a process many fear the BJP wants to roll out nationwide.

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