Hindu holy city votes as India’s six-week election ends

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Varanasi, India, June 1 (AFP/APP):Indians flocked to the polls under scorching heat in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi on Saturday as a marathon national election reached its final day, six weeks after voting first began.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely expected to win a third term in office when results are announced Tuesday, in large part due to his cultivated image as an aggressive champion of India’s majority faith.
The 73-year-old’s constituency of Varanasi is the spiritual capital of Hinduism, where devotees from around India come to cremate deceased loved ones by the Ganges river.
It is one of the final cities to vote in India’s gruelling election and where public support for Modi’s ever-closer alignment of religion and politics burns brightest.
“Modi is obviously winning,” Vijayendra Kumar Singh, who works in one of the popular pilgrimage destination’s many hotels, told AFP.
“There’s a sense of pride with everything he does, and that’s why people vote for him.”
Modi has already led the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to two landslide victories in 2014 and 2019, forged in large part by his appeal to the Hindu faithful.
This year, he presided over the inauguration of a grand temple to the deity Ram, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya razed by Hindu zealots in 1992.
Construction of the temple fulfilled a longstanding demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated across the country with back-to-back television coverage and street parties.
The ceremony, and numerous other chest-beating appeals to India’s majority religion over the past decade, have in turn made many among the country’s 200 million-plus minority Muslim community increasingly uneasy about their futures.
Modi himself has made a number of strident comments about Muslims on the campaign trail, referring to them as “infiltrators”.
He has also accused the motley coalition of more than two dozen opposition parties contesting the poll against him of plotting to redistribute India’s wealth to its Muslim citizens.
Janesar Akhtar, a Muslim clothesmaker working in Varanasi’s famed embroidery workshops, told AFP that the BJP’s sectarian campaigning was an unfortunate distraction from India’s chronic unemployment problems.
“Workshops here are closing down and the Modi government has been busy with the politics of temples and mosques,” the 44-year-old said.
“He is supposed to give us jobs and not tensions.”