India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM
People arrive to cast their votes at a polling station during the first phase of general election, in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India on April 19, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 19 April 2024
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India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM
  • Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members to lower house of Parliament 
  • The staggered elections will run until June 1, votes will be counted on June 4

NEW DELHI: Millions of Indians began voting Friday in a six-week election that’s a referendum on Narendra Modi, the populist prime minister who has championed an assertive brand of Hindu nationalist politics and is seeking a rare third term as the country’s leader.
The voters began queuing up at polling stations hours before they were allowed in at 7 a.m. in the first 21 states to hold votes, from the Himalayan mountains to the tropical Andaman Islands. Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10 percent of the world’s population — will elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years during the staggered elections that run until June 1. The votes will be counted on June 4.
One voter said she came early to avoid the summer heat later in the day.
Prime Minister Modi urged people to vote in record numbers. “I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers. After all, every vote counts and every voice matters!” he said in a message on the social media platform X.
This election is seen as one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test the limits of Modi’s political dominance.
If Modi wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
Most polls predict a win for Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who are up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.
It’s not clear who will lead India if the opposition alliance, called INDIA, wins the election. Its more than 20 parties have not put forward a candidate, saying they will choose one after the results are known.
The BJP is facing the toughest challenge in southern Tamil Nadu state with 39 seats where the voting is being held on Friday. The BJP drew a blank in 2019 and won one seat in the 2014 elections with the region dominated by two powerful regional groups, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Modi focussed on the state this time and visited it more than a dozen times, holding several rallies and roadshows.
P. Chidambaram, an opposition Congress party leader and the country’s former finance minister, said after voting in Tamil Nadu state that people would not vote for the BJP in the state as “It is imposing one language, one culture, one system and one kind of food.”
The voting also is taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur that was ravaged by a near-civil war for a year caused by fighting between the majority Meitei and tribal Kuki-Zo people. Mobs have rampaged through villages and torched houses.
The election authority has set up voting stations for nearly 320 relief camps where more than 59,000 men, women and children are living. The state stands divided between a valley controlled by the Meiteis and the Kuki-dominated hills.
More than 150 people were killed and over 60,000 displaced. The voting for two seats will be completed on April 26.
In the 2019 elections, the BJP and its allies had won 39 of 102 seats where the voting is taking place on Friday. These include Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal states.
The election comes after a decade of Modi’s leadership, during which the BJP has consolidated power through a combination of Hindu-first politics and economic development.
Modi has ratcheted up Hindu nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, and has sought to present himself as a global leader. His ministers tout him as the steward of a surging India, while his supporters celebrate his campaign promise to make India a developed nation by 2047, when it marks 100 years of independence.
But while India’s economy is among the world’s fastest-growing, many of its people face growing economic distress. The opposition alliance is hoping to tap into this, seeking to galvanize voters on issues like high unemployment, inflation, corruption and low agricultural prices that have driven two years of farmers’ protests.
Critics warn that Modi has turned increasingly illiberal and that he could use a third term to undermine India’s democracy. His Hindu nationalist politics, they argue, has bred intolerance and threatens the country’s secular roots.
The alliance has promised to arrest the democratic slide it says India has witnessed under Modi’s rule. They accuse Modi of sidelining elected ministers in favor of trusted bureaucrats and using tax authorities and the police to harass critics and opposition parties.
“Modi has a very authoritarian mindset. He doesn’t believe in democracy. He doesn’t believe in Parliamentarianism,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, who has written about Modi and the Hindu right.
Modi insists that India’s commitment to democracy is unchanged. He told a Summit for Democracy meeting in New Delhi in March that ‘“India is not only fulfilling the aspirations of its 1.4 billion people, but is also providing hope to the world that democracy delivers and empowers.’’
The Indian leader enjoys vast popularity among India’s 1.4 billion people. His BJP dominates in Hindi-speaking northern and central parts of India, and is now trying to gain a foothold in the east and south to capture a two-thirds majority. Modi and other BJP candidates have repeatedly vowed to take at least 400 seats.
The party hopes for a landslide win powered by its popular welfare programs, which it says have improved access to clean toilets, health care and cooking gas, as well as providing free grain to the poor. Moves like the construction of a controversial temple to Ram on the site of a demolished mosque, and the scrapping of the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir’s former autonomy, may resonate with supporters who hail him as the champion of the Hindu majority.
“Any party that comes back for a third term, and with a brute majority, is a scary prospect for democracy,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator.
Modi’s two terms have seen civil liberties in India come under attack and it implementing what critics say are discriminatory policies. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened, violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority, and government agencies have arrested opposition politicians in alleged corruption cases.
The BJP has denied its policies are discriminatory and says its work benefits all Indians.


CIA chief Burns to visit Paris to revive talks on Gaza: Western source

CIA chief Burns to visit Paris to revive talks on Gaza: Western source
Updated 5 sec ago
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CIA chief Burns to visit Paris to revive talks on Gaza: Western source

CIA chief Burns to visit Paris to revive talks on Gaza: Western source
WASHINGTON: US intelligence chief Bill Burns is expected to hold talks in Paris with representatives of Israel in a bid to relaunch talks aimed at finding a truce in Gaza, a Western source close to the issue said Friday.
The visit of the CIA chief to the French capital, expected on Friday or Saturday, comes after Israel gave the green light to the resumption of negotiations for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for a ceasefire.
Previous talks in Cairo and Doha attended by Qatar and Egypt as mediators for Hamas broke up earlier this month with both Israel and the Palestinian militant group unhappy with the conditions of the other side.
It was not immediately clear if representatives of Qatar or Egypt would be present at the Paris talks.
The New York Times said Burns would meet his Israeli counterpart David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency.
The US-based Axios news website quoted a source as saying Burns would also meet Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani as well as Barnea.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Axios said Israeli negotiators developed in recent days a “new proposal” to renew the hostage talks which includes “some compromises” in Israel’s position compared to the last round of negotiations in Cairo.

US, European powers divided over confronting Iran at IAEA, diplomats say

US, European powers divided over confronting Iran at IAEA, diplomats say
Updated 2 min 22 sec ago
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US, European powers divided over confronting Iran at IAEA, diplomats say

US, European powers divided over confronting Iran at IAEA, diplomats say

VIENNA: The US and its three top European allies are divided over whether to confront Iran at the UN nuclear watchdog by seeking a resolution against it and thereby risk further escalation, with the Europeans in favor, diplomats say.
It is 18 months since the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors last passed a resolution against Iran, ordering it to cooperate urgently with a years-long IAEA investigation into uranium particles found at three undeclared sites.
While the number of sites in question has been narrowed to two, Iran still has not explained the traces, and the number of other problems in Iran has risen including Tehran barring many of the IAEA’s top uranium-enrichment experts on the inspection team.
A quarterly Board of Governors meeting begins in 10 days.
“It’s extremely difficult with Iran and the level of violations is unprecedented ... There is no slowing down of its program and there is no real goodwill by Iran to cooperate with the IAEA,” a senior European diplomat said.
“All our indicators are flashing red.”
Concern about Iran’s atomic activities has been high for some time. It has been enriching uranium to 60 percent purity, close to the roughly 90 percent that is weapons-grade, for three years. It has enough material enriched to that level, if refined further, for three nuclear bombs, according to an IAEA yardstick.
Western powers say there is no credible civilian energy purpose in enriching to that level, and the IAEA says no other country has done so without making a nuclear weapon. Iran says its objectives are entirely peaceful.
The United States, however, has not wanted to seek another resolution against Iran at recent IAEA board meetings. Before the last one, in March, the European powers — France, Britain and Germany, known as the “E3” — disagreed with Washington on whether to seek a resolution but then backed down.
Officials often cite the US presidential election as a reason for the Biden administration’s reluctance.
But the main argument US officials make is to avoid giving Iran a pretext to respond by escalating its nuclear activities, as it has done in the past.
Tensions in the Middle East are running particularly high with Israel continuing its military campaign in Gaza in response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. Israel and Iran carried out direct strikes on each other for the first time last month, and Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday has complicated the situation. In talks aimed at improving Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA, Tehran told the Vienna-based agency this week it would not engage with it until Raisi’s successor is elected on June 28, two diplomats said.
“A resolution has been prepared,” another senior European diplomat said. Others confirmed the E3 had prepared a draft but not circulated it to Board members.
“Our analysis is the death of Raisi changes nothing. We have to move forward with this resolution ... The Americans are the difficulty, and in our conversations we continue to do everything to convince them.”
It was unclear when a decision on whether to seek a resolution would be reached. The next quarterly IAEA reports on Iran are due early next week. Draft resolutions tend to refer to those reports’ findings.


British neonatal nurse convicted of killing 7 babies loses her bid to appeal

British neonatal nurse convicted of killing 7 babies loses her bid to appeal
Updated 4 min 45 sec ago
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British neonatal nurse convicted of killing 7 babies loses her bid to appeal

British neonatal nurse convicted of killing 7 babies loses her bid to appeal
  • Lucy Letby, 34, had asked for permission to challenge the verdict after she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison

LONDON: A British neonatal nurse who was convicted of murdering seven babies and the attempted murder of six others has lost her bid to appeal.
Lucy Letby, 34, had asked for permission to challenge the verdict after she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year. A three-judge panel of Britain’s Court of Appeal heard the case in April and released its decision on Friday.
“Having heard her application, we have decided to refuse leave to appeal on all grounds and refuse all associated applications,″ Judge Victoria Sharp said. “A full judgment will be handed down in due course.”
A jury at Manchester Crown Court had found her guilty of the crimes, which took place between June 2015 and June 2016 at the neonatal unit at the Countess of Chester Hospital in northwestern England.
Most defendants in British court cases don’t have an automatic right to appeal. They must seek permission to appeal on a set of narrowly defined legal issues.


UK Labour leader Starmer says wants to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process

UK Labour leader Starmer says wants to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process
Updated 6 min 33 sec ago
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UK Labour leader Starmer says wants to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process

UK Labour leader Starmer says wants to recognize Palestinian state as part of peace process
  • Ireland, Spain and Norway announced this week that they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28
  • The Labour Party has been engulfed by an internal battle over its policy to the war in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas

LONDON: Britain’s opposition leader Keir Starmer said on Friday he wanted to recognize a Palestinian state if he won power in an upcoming general election, but said that such a move would need to come at the right time in a peace process.
Ireland, Spain and Norway announced this week that they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, prompting an angry response from Israel which said this amounted to a “reward for terrorism” and recalled its ambassadors from the three capitals.
The Labour Party has been engulfed by an internal battle over its policy to the war in Gaza since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that led to Israel’s invasion.
Starmer has faced criticism for some traditional Labour voters for only gradually shifting the party’s position toward supporting a ceasefire in Gaza.
The party’s stance led to 10 senior party lawmakers quitting their policy roles and was blamed for a handful of disappointing results in this month’s local elections in some areas with large Muslim populations.
Asked if he thought Palestine should be a state, Starmer told the BBC: “Yes, I do, and I think recognition of Palestine is extremely important. We need a viable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel, and recognition has to be part of that.”
Starmer said recognition of a Palestinian state would need to come at the right time in a peace process, but “I absolutely believe in it,” arguing a two-state solution was essential for lasting peace in the region.
The two-state solution has long been the framework of British foreign policy and international efforts to resolve the conflict but the peace process has been moribund for years.
The current Conservative government, and other big European states such as France and Germany, have also voiced support in principle for a Palestinian state, but with the timing of recognition forming part of a broader peace process.
This week, Labour backed the independence of the International Criminal Court after it sought arrest warrants for both Hamas and Israeli officials for war crimes, opening up a divide with the governing Conservative Party.
The Conservative government said the ICC did not have the jurisdiction to request the arrest warrants and it would not help get Israeli hostages out of Gaza, get humanitarian aid in, or deliver a sustainable ceasefire.


India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty
Updated 24 May 2024
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India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty
  • Indian central bank has announced record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates
  • Surplus fund can help the new government bring down fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of GDP or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: India’s incoming government will be greeted with a $25 billion cheque from the central bank, giving it the option to either boost spending or narrow the fiscal deficit quicker, both of which will be cheered by investors.
On Wednesday, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to the government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates, leading to a decline in bond yields and a rise in equity markets.
The surplus fund can help the new government, which will take charge after the current elections, bring down its fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus, Citi Research’s Samiran Chakraborty said.
“The bond markets would likely hope that the government follows the deficit reduction route, while the equity markets would likely prefer the government taking the expenditure increase one,” said Chakraborty.
During the election campaigns, the opposition Congress promised annual cash handouts of 100,000 rupees ($1,202.07) to poor women and unemployed youth. The party’s star campaigner Rahul Gandhi also promised debt waiver for farmers.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has avoided promising any new major welfare measures.
“Despite higher revenue from the RBI dividend, we doubt the government would opt for more populist expenditure in its budget, if the government is BJP-led,” said Shreya Sodhani, an economist at Barclays.
“The current government has not shown a disposition toward populist spending even in an election year.”
The BJP-led government resisted the temptation of spending trillions of rupees on schemes for the poor in its last budget before the election while raising spending on infrastructure to 11.11 trillion rupees, more than three time the sum spent in 2019.
QUICKER FISCAL CONSOLIDATION
The new government will likely present the final budget in July, leaving the administration with only eight months to spend funds allocated to them.
Government spending has been slow so far in the year, with the start of elections from April. Tax collections, meanwhile, have been strong due to buoyancy in the economy.
India collected a record 2.10 trillion rupees in goods and services taxes in April, the first month of the financial year, ensuring the government is on track to meet its planned fiscal goal of 5.1 percent of GDP this year.
This could mean the government will lean toward using the bumper dividend for fiscal consolidation.
There is scope for a slight reduction in the targeted fiscal deficit for the current year, said Ashima Goyal, a professor and an external member of the country’s monetary policy committee, who expects the government to comfortably achieve the targeted fiscal deficit of 4.5 percent by 2025/26.
India’s fiscal deficit ballooned to 9.2 percent during the pandemic but the government has steadily brought this down.
But bringing down the deficit by 130 basis points from 5.8 percent in 2023/24 was seen as challenging and dependent on one-off revenue from either privatization or auction of telecom spectrum.
($1 = 83.1900 Indian rupees)