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Voting Begins in India        10/28 06:54

   

   PATNA, India (AP) -- Voting began Wednesday in India's third-largest state 
of Bihar, the first major election in the country since the pandemic and a test 
for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity as he faces criticism on many 
fronts.

   India has registered nearly 8 million confirmed coronavirus cases, behind 
only the United States, even as daily infections have fallen by about half and 
deaths by about a third in recent weeks. More than 120,010 people have died.

   The eastern Bihar state, with a population of 122 million people, has 
reported more than 200,000 cases and there are concerns over a surge in 
infections during the elections. More than 70 million voters are eligible to 
cast ballots for 243 assembly seats and polling is divided into three phases.

   Nearly 21 million voters are registered for the first phase on Wednesday. 
The results will be declared on Nov. 10.

   India's Election Commission has taken a series of measures in its effort to 
halt the spread of the virus. It has increased the number of polling stations, 
extended the voting time by one hour at most places and sanitization of 
electronic voting machines has been made mandatory. Authorities will also 
conduct temperature checks at entry points and voters will be provided hand 
sanitizers, soap and water.

   Initially, political campaigning was replaced with virtual rallies, but soon 
political parties drew tens of thousands of largely bare-faced supporters, 
raising fears cases could jump and strain the state's critically underfunded 
and weak health care system.

   Bihar is one of India's poorest states but a key electoral battleground 
where Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power for more than a decade as 
a partner in an alliance with a regional party, the Janata Dal United. It's led 
by Nitish Kumar, who is being accused of not doing enough to lift the region 
out of poverty. Wednesday's polls pit the ruling alliance against the regional 
Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Tejashwi Yadav.

   Yadav's party, which remains tainted by corruption allegations and is teamed 
up with the Indian National Congress, has made employment for youth its main 
election promise.

   Modi's party was more focused on nationalistic policies. Its leaders often 
evoked the erosion of semi-autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir last summer and 
the recent border clash with China in Ladakh to garner votes.

   BJP also found itself in the middle of a row when Finance Minister Nirmala 
Sitharaman promised free vaccination to people of Bihar. The promise angered 
the Congress and other opposition parties, which accused BJP of politicizing 
the pandemic and playing on people's fears.

   The polls are seen as a gauge for Modi's popularity.

   His second term has been marked by many convulsions. The economy has tanked, 
social strife widened, countless protests have erupted against discriminatory 
laws and his government has been questioned over its response to the pandemic. 
In the past two years, BJP has lost six state elections and gained power only 
in one.

   Bihar could also be a tough challenge for Modi's party for other reasons.

   When Modi announced a sweeping lockdown to stall the spread of coronavirus 
in March, millions of migrant workers were forced to leave big cities and 
return to their villages, more than 2 million in Bihar alone. The lockdown also 
resulted in huge job losses in the state and ravaged its poor economy.

   Pollsters are expecting the ruling coalition to retain power with a 
razor-thin margin but say the government's handling of the virus and the 
implementation of a hasty lockdown could deliver a surprise verdict.

 
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