Modi files candidacy for India election in Hindu holy city

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he walks on the day he files his nomination papers for the general election in Varanasi, India, 14 May 2024
Hundreds of supporters gathered to cheer Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the local government office in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of Hinduism in India (image: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Cheering crowds greeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday as he submitted his candidacy for a Hindu holy city's parliamentary seat in a general election his party is strongly favoured to win

Modi remains roundly popular in India, in large part due to his cultivated image as an aggressive champion of the country's majority faith. 

Varanasi is the spiritual capital of Hinduism, where devotees from around India come to cremate deceased loved ones by the Ganges river, and the premier has represented the city since sweeping to power a decade ago. 

"I swear on God... I will have faith and allegiance to India's constitution," Modi said before handing over the paperwork to an election registrar, flanked by a Hindu mystic dressed in a loincloth. 

Hundreds of supporters had gathered to applaud Modi outside the local government office where he lodged his nomination, at the end of a two-day campaign stop packed with numerous public displays of worship. 

"It's our good fortune that Modi represents our constituency of Varanasi," devout Hindu Jitendra Singh Kumar, a 52-year-old farmer, said while waiting to catch a glimpse of the leader. 

"He is like a God to people of Varanasi. He thinks about the country first, unlike other politicians."

Modi waved to the gathered crowd after emerging from the office before leaving with his entourage, made up of senior figures from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

"The amazing love and blessings I have received from all of you in the last ten years have inspired me to work with a constant spirit of service and full determination," Modi wrote afterwards in a post on social media platform X. 

The 73-year-old premier, who has made acts of religious devotion a fixture of his premiership, had spent the morning visiting temples and offering prayers at the banks of the Ganges.

Tens of thousands of supporters had lined the streets of Varanasi to greet Modi as he arrived in the city on Monday, waving to the crowd from atop a flatbed truck as loudspeakers blared devotional songs. 

Many along the roadside waved saffron-coloured flags bearing the lotus flower emblem of the BJP, throwing marigold flowers at the procession as it passed by. 

Modi and the BJP are widely expected to win this year's election, which is conducted over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging the democratic exercise in the world's most populous country. 

Varanasi is one of the last constituencies to vote on 1 June, with counting and results expected three days later. 

Since the vote began last month, Modi has made a number of strident comments against India's 200-million-plus Muslim minority in an apparent effort to galvanise support.

In public speeches he has referred to Muslims as "infiltrators" and "those who have more children", prompting condemnation from opposition politicians and complaints to India's election commission. 

The ascent of Modi's Hindu-nationalist politics despite India's officially secular constitution has made Muslims in the country increasingly anxious. 

"We are made to feel as if we are not wanted in this country," Shauqat Mohamed, who runs a tea shop in the city, told AFP. "If the country's premier speaks of us in disparaging terms, what else can we expect?" the 41-year-old added. "We have to accept our fate and move on." (AFP)