New Delhi votes with Modi’s popularity on the line

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FILE – In this Jan. 1, 2020, file photo, an Indian student holds a placard during a protest against a new citizenship law in front of India Gate war memorial, in New Delhi, India. Campaigning for a crucial state election in India’s capital has reached a fever pitch as members of the Hindu nationalist-led government call for violence against minority Muslims and invoke the specter of arch-nemesis Pakistan to reverse course after a pair of losses in recent state polls. The Delhi election on Feb. 8 has been seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s response to nearly two months of protests across India against a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some migrants of neighboring countries living in the country illegally of all South Asia’s major religions except Islam. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

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NEW DELHI (AP) — Residents of India’s capital voted Saturday in a crucial state election in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party sought to regain power after a 22-year gap and major victories in a national vote.

About 57% of the 14.6 million registered voters lined up in queues across New Delhi to cast ballots, India’s election commission said.

Results will be declared on Tuesday.

The polls pit Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party against the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party, or “common man’s” party, whose pro-poor policies have focused on fixing state-run schools and providing free health care and bus fares for women during the five years in power.

The BJP campaign reopened old wounds in the Hindu-Muslim divide and treated the election as a referendum on nearly two months of protests across India against a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.

The law fast-tracks naturalization for non-Muslim migrants from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who are living in the country illegally. Modi’s BJP also hopes to garner Hindu votes for ending semi-autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir last summer and turning the disputed region into two federally governed territories amid security lockdown.

Both of those actions have won him praise from supporters but little reward at the polls. BJP lost two important state elections last year.

“They (BJP) must be given a jolt. We are poor, but we are also humans. They only talk about divisions,” said Shabnam Mukhtar, a housewife at Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighborhood where Muslim women have staged a sit-in for two months to protest the citizenship law.

Ehtashamul Haque, a businessman, said the Aam Aadmi Party “only has development on their mind” in comparison to the BJP.

“People should vote for development,” he said.

Surveys by television news channels predicted a clear victory for the Aam Admi Party in the 70-member state assembly. The Congress, a distant third party, has run a lackluster campaign and is expected to fare poorly.

During the campaigning, BJP members called for violence against minority Muslims by invoking the specter of archenemy Pakistan. Critics have called the incendiary religious appeals a tactic by BJP to divert attention from the sluggish economy, which expanded at a 4.5% annual pace in the last quarter, its slowest rate since mid-2018.

A win would be hugely symbolic and likely to embolden Modi and his party to pursue a pro-Hindu agenda with vigor, while a loss could dent Modi’s charisma.

Modi’s BJP was voted out of power in New Delhi in 1998 by the Congress party, which had run the government for 15 years. In the 2015 elections, the Aam Admi Party won a landslide victory by capturing 67 of 70 seats. The BJP could win only three seats despite winning the 2014 national elections.

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Associated Press video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this report.

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