LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Voters cast ballots Monday in the crucial fifth phase of India’s marathon elections, including in two constituencies in the vote-rich state of Uttar Pradesh where opposition Congress party President Rahul Gandhi and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, hope to retain their seats.
More than 25 million people are registered to vote for 14 members of India’s Parliament in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, where temperatures were scorching and security was tight.
Rahul Gandhi is seeking re-election for a fourth consecutive time in Amethi. He is the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, is running from neighboring Rae Bareli.
Both constituencies are considered Congress party bastions.
Monday’s voting was held in 51 constituencies spread over seven states.
India’s multi-phase elections, which started April 11 and last five weeks, are seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which controls Uttar Pradesh.
In Indian-controlled Kashmir, suspected rebels fighting against Indian rule lobbed a grenade at a polling station in a village near Pulwama town, police said. No one was reported hurt.
Voting for one parliamentary seat is being spread over three days because of security threats posed by almost daily clashes, government crackdowns and anti-India protests.
Muslim separatists say the polls are an illegitimate exercise under India’s military occupation. The voting was dull with only a small number of people coming to polling stations.
On Sunday night, Kashmiri youths hurled stones at election staff and their security guards as they moved into schools and government buildings to set up polling stations in the area. Troops fired shotguns and tear gas to quell anti-India protests, injuring several people, police said.
Voting also was held in the remote mountainous Ladakh region, which has India’s highest polling station at an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,570 meters). Another high-altitude polling station was set up for only 12 voters in the cold desert region.
Modi 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 neighbor and archrival.
The opposition is challenging him over India’s 6.1% unemployment rate — the highest in years — and the distress of farmers aggravated by low crop prices. They have also made alleged corruption in a deal to purchase French fighter jets a major election issue.
Monday’s polling will mark the completion of voting for more than 400 out of 543 parliamentary seats. The 39-day process will be completed on May 19. The counting will be held on May 23.
The election’s fifth phase is a war of titans.
Rahul Gandhi is pitted against the government’s textile minister, Smriti Irani, for Amethi.
Irani lost to Gandhi in 2014 polls but in the last five years has steered central government funds for development to the constituency and visited often.
“This time BJP is going to win the election,” Irani told The Associated Press. “They promised the moon to these people but in reality Amethi is one of the most neglected constituencies because Gandhis never took interest in development of this region.”
Gandhi is also contesting the election from Wayanad, a district in the southern state of Kerala. In India, it’s possible to run in more than one constituency, but one can represent only one seat in Parliament.
His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is also national general secretary of the party, carried out intensive campaigns in both Amethi and Rae Bareli, and predicted her brother would carry Amethi by an even larger margin than in 2014.
“There is an emotional attachment between the people of Amethi and Congress,” she said.
In other races, powerful Home Minister Rajnath Singh is in the fray from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Another Modi government minister, Menaka Gandhi, who has strained relations with her sister-in-law Sonia Gandhi, is contesting from Sultanpur.
State chief electoral officer Venketshwar Lu told reporters on Monday that polling started smoothly and that shade, fans and drinking water had been made available at all polling booths.
“We are expecting good turnout this time,” he said.
This story has corrected the spelling of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.