KOLKATA, India — Indians are voting in the seventh and final phase of national elections, wrapping up a 6-week-long long, grueling campaign season with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party seeking reelection for another five years.
The voting on Sunday also covers Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city where he was elected in 2014. He spent Saturday night at Kedarnath, a temple of Hindu god Shiva nestled in the Himalayas in northern India.
Counting of votes is scheduled for May 23.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. He has adopted a nationalist pitch in trying to win votes from the country’s Hindu majority by projecting a tough stance against Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbour and archrival.
Modi has played up the threat of Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers.
The Congress and other opposition parties are challenging him over a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers’ distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Some of Modi’s boldest policy steps, such as the demonetisation of high currency notes to curb black-market money and bring a large number of people into tax net, proved to be economically damaging. A haphazard implementation of “one nation, one tax”– goods and services tax — also hit small and medium businesses.
Voter turnout in the first six rounds was approximately 66%, the Election Commission said, up slightly from 58% in the last national vote in 2014.
The election has taken place in a charged atmosphere as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party sought a second term by pushing policies that some say have increased religious tensions and undermined multiculturalism. The campaigning has been marred by accusations and insults, as well as the unprecedented use of social media.
Voting has largely been peaceful but for sporadic violence in the eastern state of West Bengal , where the BJP is trying to wrest seats from Trinamool Congress, a powerful regional party that is currently governing the state.
In a drastic and unprecedented action, the Election Commission cut off campaigning early in West Bengal on Thursday after days of clashes in the final stretch of the election.
Pre-election poll surveys by the media indicate that no party is likely to win anything close to a majority in Parliament with 543 seats. The BJP, which won a majority of 282 seats in 2014, may need some regional parties as allies to stay in power.
A Congress-led government will require a major electoral upset.
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.