Violent clashes broke out in West Bengal again yesterday in the final phase of the staggered election that will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns for a second term.
The police used batons to break up skirmishes between supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress party in Kankinara, on the outskirts of Kolkata.
Several crude bombs were also exploded during the clashes, the police said.
The state has seen sporadic violence between supporters of the BJP and the Trinamool Congress throughout the election, as Modi’s party pushed hard to make inroads and offset likely losses elsewhere.
West Bengal elects 42 lawmakers, the third-highest of all states.
The BJP-led alliance is likely to win a majority in parliament, two exit polls showed, after voting in the mammoth general election ended yesterday.
The gruelling, 39-day poll began in the wake of aerial clashes and escalated tensions with Pakistan, which the BJP used to focus its campaign on national security.
The main opposition Congress Party and other regional blocs concentrated on the government’s economic mismanagement and inability to create jobs in their attempt to win voters.
However, the campaign turned increasingly personal and vitriolic in the final stages and clashes between rival groups marred polling in West Bengal.
Security was tight around voting stations in Kolkata and surrounding areas where people cast their vote.
Around 57,000 policemen were deployed and more than 400 quick response teams were on standby, the chief electoral officer in Kolkata said.
Neelanjan Sircar, a political science professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, said opposition groups were looking to tap into anger against Modi and the BJP’s strong grassroots machinery that helped it win in 2014.
“To me, this election is very much a battle between voter accountability and party organisation,” Sircar said.
Long queues formed outside polling stations in the eastern state but the BJP and its rivals again accused each other of using violence, fraud and intimidation.
Modi’s constituency in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh was also among those to vote.
Conjoined twins Sabah and Farah twins voted in the Bihar capital of Patna and 102-year-old Shyam Saran Negi, who has taken part in every Indian vote since independence in 1947, cast his ballot in mountainous Himachal Pradesh state, highlighting the huge diversity of the exercise.
Modi and Gandhi have hurled insults at each other on a near daily basis with the prime minister calling his rival a “fool” while Gandhi derides Modi as a “thief”.
The animosity has taken a toll on voters.
“All the abuse and misconduct claims suggest that standards in Indian politics have slipped badly,” Asit Banerjee, a history teacher in Kolkata, said as he queued to vote.
“Endless mudslinging and bitter comments pervaded the campaign. We are losing hope in a democracy, it is time for a reset,” the 60-year-old said.
Writing in the Hindustan Times, political commentator Karan Thapar said Modi’s message “played on our insecurities and strummed upon our deep inner fears”. He also criticised Gandhi’s campaign.
The 68-year-old Modi has held 142 rallies across India during the campaign, sometimes five a day.
On Saturday Modi, dressed in a long robe and saffron sash, trekked to a Himalayan shrine to meditate, with images showing him seated on a bed inside a holy cave in the country’s north.
Meanwhile Gandhi has struggled to make himself heard above the din of the BJP’s campaign juggernaut.
The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimates that the outlay on this election could top $7bn, making it one of the priciest contests globally - with the lion’s share of the spending by the BJP trying to woo India’s 900mn eligible voters.
Lots of it has been spent on social media, with the parties using armies of “cyber warriors” to bombard India’s hundreds of millions of Facebook and WhatsApp users with messages.
Fake news and doctored images have abounded, including of Gandhi and Modi having lunch with Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, or of a drunk Priyanka Gandhi, a Congress leader and the sister of Rahul.
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