NEW DELHI (AP) — Two Indian states began voting in local elections on Tuesday in a test of strength for India’s opposition, which is pitted against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party ahead of a crucial national vote scheduled for next year.
The elections in central Chhattisgarh and northeastern Mizoram states, along with polls in three others states over the next three weeks, are expected to give an indication of voter mood before India’s political parties gear up for nationwide elections in 2024 in which Modi is eyeing a third consecutive term.
A second round of voting in Chhattisgarh will be held on Nov. 17 along with polls in central Madhya Pradesh state. Polls in two more states, western Rajasthan and southern Telangana, will be held Nov. 23 and Nov. 30. Votes in all five states will be counted on Dec. 3 and results will be declared the same day.
The Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party, holds power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rules Madhya Pradesh and its regional ally is in power in Mizoram. Telangana is ruled by a strong regional party.
The Congress party also leads the INDIA alliance, which is aiming to keep Modi’s increasingly powerful sway at bay. The acronym, which stands for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, comprises India’s previously fractured opposition parties.
Modi and leaders of the Congress party headed by Rahul Gandhi have traveled across the five states in a charged-up election campaign trying to woo voters by promising them subsidies, loan waivers and employment guarantees.
Modi and his party remain popular nationally after nearly a decade in power and surveys suggest he is expected to win a third term as prime minister. But his party is expected to face tough challenges in all five state polls where issues like rising unemployment and commodity price increases are likely to play on voters’ minds.
Meanwhile, the Congress party hopes to revive its fortunes in these states ahead of the national polls next year. It has announced welfare schemes for women and farmers in states where it is in a direct contest with Modi’s party.
The local polls will also test the INDIA alliance’s strength after it came together to take on Modi in July.
During his nine years in power, Modi has consolidated his party’s reach in north and central India. But the party has faced tough challenges in states where regional parties hold influence.
In recent polls, Congress toppled local BJP governments in state elections in southern Karnataka and northern Himachal Pradesh, denting the ruling party’s image of invincibility.
Modi will seek reelection next year at a time when India’s global diplomatic reach is rising. However, his rule at home has coincided with a struggling economy, rising unemployment, attacks by Hindu nationalists against the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.