Delhi votes in test for Modi and women protesters

Abhaya Srivastava and Maude Brulard –

Millions in the Indian capital voted on Saturday in a regional election seen as a key test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Long lines formed outside New Delhi polling stations amid heavy security as a weeks-old protest by women against a new citizenship law continued to cause chaos for commuters.
In an often vitriolic election campaign, Modi and other leaders of his nationalist party have slammed opponents of the law who deem it anti-minority. The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking to oust Arvind Kejriwal, the capital’s chief minister, whose upstart Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man’s Party, took a record 67 of 70 Delhi assembly seats in 2015. While Kejriwal has focused on local issues including the heavily subsidised electricity, water and healthcare he introduced, BJP leaders have sought to turn the vote into a referendum on the women’s protest.
Hundreds have been blocking a main road through Shaheen Bagh district since December 15 in protest against legislation that offers a fast-track to Indian nationality for persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries but excludes Muslims.
On the eve of the elections, the BJP sent out messages telling people to vote for the party if they wanted an end to the rally.
With the BJP on the back foot after failing in state elections in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, analysts said the Delhi result will be a key test of opinion on national issues.
Near the women’s protest site, food company senior executive Maroof Ahmad said the “BJP has only two agendas — Shaheen Bagh and Pakistan. They have nothing else to talk about.” “GDP is falling, the economy is in a mess and they are only bothered about temples and mosques,” he added.
But others lined up behind the prime minister.
In the affluent Jangpura neighbourhood, flower garlands and balloons decorated the polling station as financial consultant Vinod Kumar came to vote. “I am not biased towards any political party but I don’t endorse the Shaheen Bagh protest. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru believed in and supported the citizenship law,” he said referring to India’s revered independence leaders.
Thousands of extra security officers were on duty for the election with a large contingent at five polling stations near the Shaheen Bagh protest. Women’s safety has increasingly become an issue in Delhi since a 2012 gang rape murder made international headlines.
In a bid to persuade more females to vote, authorities set up dozens of women-only “pink polling booths” across the capital.
More than 14 million people are eligible to take part in Saturday’s vote. The results will be announced on Tuesday. — AFP