Heat and hateful rhetoric rise as India votes in penultimate phase of mammoth national election

Millions of voters stood in queues under the scorching sun as India conducted the sixth phase of its mammoth national election on Saturday.

More than 111 million voters in eight states and federal territories were registered to vote in the penultimate phase to decide the fate of 889 candidates contesting 58 seats, including all seven seats in the national capital Delhi.

The final phase of voting is on 1 June and the results are set to be declared on 4 June.

Nearly 969 million people are eligible to vote in the ongoing election, which will determine if Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party get a third successive term in power.

As voters turned out on Saturday, they had to stand in long queues without adequate shade from the scorching sun. In Delhi, mercury hovered around 42C but it felt like 49C at 2pm, according to the weather department.

“We hope that people will overcome the fear of the heatwave and come and vote,” Delhi chief electoral officer P Krishnamurthy said.

Mr Modi also urged voters to come out in large numbers.

“Every vote counts, make yours count too,” the prime minister said.

By 3pm, 49.20 per cent of the registered voters had cast their ballots, the Election Commission of India said.

While the eastern state of West Bengal saw the highest turnout of about 70 per cent, Uttar Pradesh state in the north recorded 43.95 per cent. Delhi saw a turnout of 44.58 per cent.

The final voter will be released after 6pm local time when polling closes.

The turnout in the same phase of the last election in 2019 was about 63 per cent. This year, extreme heat has caused a decline of about 1 per cent in the turnout for the first four phases.

The election has been marked by increasingly divisive rhetoric, with Mr Modi seeming to lead the way. The prime minister has targeted the country’s Muslim minority, a bugbear of his Hindu nationalist base, drawing criticism from rights groups like Amnesty.

In one speech, Mr Modi referred to the country’s Muslims as “infiltrators”.

In another speech, he said if the opposition Congress party was elected to office it would take wealth from “Hindu wives and daughters” and give it to “those with more children”, a dog whistle that Hindu nationalists commonly employ against Muslims.

On Friday, the Chhattisgarh state chapter of Modi’s party had to pull down three “objectionable” posts from Instagram after an intervention by the state’s chief electoral officer, The Indian Express reported.

One animated video posted on 15 May showed a man in a skull cap, a Muslim symbol, robbing a woman, with Rahul Gandhi, the face of the opposition, flying in to assist the thief.

Another post was an image posted on 20 May depicting opposition Mr Gandhi snatching a woman’s mangalsutra, a traditional necklace worn by married Hindu women, and handing it to a man.

The third post was an animated video showing Mr Gandhi allowing Muslims to take social welfare benefits away from marginalised Hindu groups.

Sushil Anand Shukla, a spokesperson for the Congress party in Chhattisgarh, accused the ruling party of “conspiring to disrupt communal harmony of India”.

The ruling party denied the posts were communal or that they had received a notice from the election watchdog to take them down. They were removed, the party said, because it was “following the election guidelines”.

“There was nothing religious about it,” Somesh Pandey of the Chhattisgarh BJP’s social media cell said.

“The posts were related to the Congress narrative of inheritance tax and taking away reservation and giving it to Muslims.”