India kicks off major regional elections amid Covid-19 crisis

Elections across major Indian states began on Saturday, even as the country recorded over 62,000 new Covid-19 cases in its biggest single-day spike in more than five months, dpa reported.

More than 180 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in the polls till 29 April across the populous states of West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu, as well as the federally administered territory of Puducherry. Results are then expected on 2 May.

News channels showed voters wearing masks as officials carried out temperature checks and tried to maintain physical distancing in queues as the first phase of polls began in Bengal and Assam on Saturday morning.

"Urging those eligible to vote in record numbers. I particularly call upon my young friends to vote," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in tweets as voting opened.

The polls, the biggest electoral exercise in the country since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and a four-month-long farmers' agitation, are a test of Modi's popularity. In Bengal, Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is challenging firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee and her regional Trinamool Congress party that's been in power for two terms now.

Sporadic incidents of violence between political activists were reported from the tightly contested state, media reports said, adding claims of murder of a BJP worker were rejected by the ruling party.

In Assam, a BJP-led alliance pitched against a strong coalition of parties led by the Indian National Congress is attempting to retain power.

Officials have expressed concerns over huge crowds at elections rallies amid the emerging second peak of the pandemic.

Health experts suggest that variants of the virus, as well as laxity in observing safety measures, were behind the surge in cases.

On Saturday, India recorded 62,258 new cases in the past 24 hours, the biggest single-day jump since October 16, taking the total caseload to over 11.9 million.  Fresh infections were 5.3% higher than on Friday.  291 deaths were recorded pushing the total death count to 161,240.

Amid the worrying rise in infections, the major Indian cities of New Delhi and Mumbai have announced random Covid-19 tests and barred public celebrations and gatherings during Holi, the popular festival of colours, which falls on 29 March.

Authorities have imposed partial lockdowns and restrictions in half a dozen states contributing to the spike in the cases. The government is also expanding its vaccination drive by making it open to everyone aged 45 and up from 1 April. More than 55 million doses have been administered so far, according to the government.

The election in West Bengal is the most important with the BJP pushing hard to win power

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