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Hindu Holy City Varanasi Votes as India’s Six-Week Election Concludes

India’s six-week election concluded on Saturday, with voting taking place in key locations, including the holy city of Varanasi, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has leveraged as a center for his Hindu nationalist agenda.

Modi is anticipated to secure a third term when results are announced on Tuesday, largely due to his strong image as a staunch defender of India’s majority faith.

Varanasi, Modi’s constituency, is the spiritual heart of Hinduism, attracting devotees from across the nation to cremate their loved ones by the Ganges River. It is one of the last cities to vote in India’s exhaustive election process and a stronghold of support for Modi’s intertwining of religion and politics.

“Modi is obviously winning,” said Vijayendra Kumar Singh, an employee at a popular pilgrimage destination hotel. “There’s a sense of pride in everything he does, and that’s why people vote for him.”

Modi has previously led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to decisive victories in 2014 and 2019, largely due to his appeal to Hindu supporters. This year, he oversaw the inauguration of a grand temple dedicated to the deity Ram in Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque demolished by Hindu zealots in 1992. The temple’s construction, fulfilling a long-standing demand of Hindu activists, was widely celebrated nationwide with extensive media coverage and street festivities.

Over the past decade, Modi’s frequent appeals to India’s majority religion have heightened concerns among the country’s over 200 million Muslims about their future. Modi has made several inflammatory remarks about Muslims during his campaign, labeling them as “infiltrators” and accusing the diverse coalition of opposition parties of plotting to redistribute wealth to Muslim citizens.

Analysts have long predicted Modi’s victory over the fragmented opposition, which has failed to nominate a unified candidate for prime minister. His prospects have been further strengthened by various criminal investigations into his opponents and a tax probe this year that froze the accounts of Congress, India’s largest opposition party.

Western democracies have generally overlooked issues of rights and democratic freedoms, prioritizing an alliance with India to counterbalance China’s rising influence. Modi’s domestic image has been enhanced by India’s growing diplomatic and economic power, as the country surpassed Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy in 2022.

“As an Indian, I feel that he has brought a lot of respect and prestige to India during his term,” said Shikha Aggarwal, 40, outside a polling station on Saturday. “People now regard India and Indians with much more respect, something that wasn’t there before.”

India has conducted its election in seven phases over six weeks to manage the enormous logistical challenge of holding a vote in the world’s most populous country.

Vote counting and results will be announced on Tuesday, but exit polls released after the polls close on Saturday are expected to provide an early indication of the winner.

Voter turnout has decreased by several percentage points compared to the 2019 national election. Analysts attribute this decline to the widespread expectation of a Modi victory and consecutive heatwaves affecting northern India.

Extensive scientific research indicates that climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent, and more intense, with Asia warming faster than the global average.

Temperatures in Varanasi were predicted to reach 44 degrees Celsius during Saturday’s voting.

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