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India girds for elections

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-04-19

The political posters are everywhere in this capital city these days, featuring the faces of candidates who reflect ethnic diversity as well as the multiplicity of parties contesting India's general elections next week. They compete for attention with colorful film hoardings and banners for electronics and other expensive consumer goods. Television commercials tout the economic accomplishments of the ruling 22-party coalition led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while others carry lofty promises of speedier progress if the opposition Congress Party is returned to power after a long exile. Trucks mounted with blaring speakers course through New Delhi's crowded neighborhoods, urging citizens to vote. Street theatre groups enact political skits, often imitating musical scenes from the popular Hindi movies.

The campaign to elect 543 members of lower house of the bicameral Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, is in full swing. It will be the world's biggest exercise in democracy, says T. S. Krishnamurthy, who heads India's autonomous election commission, and it will involve more than 670 million voters in 28 states and seven federal territories where balloting will be held at 700,000 voting centres between April 20 and May 10. Mr Krishnamurthy is hoping that the voter turnout will be greater than the 55 percent registered at the last election in 1999.

To ensure that Indians come out and vote, the state-run railways has arranged for special trains for four million election officials--including 2,250 poll observers and 130,000 federal troops--who will reinforce local police in 28 states and seven federal territories where balloting will be held at 700,000 voting centres. The 750 parties and political groupings registered for the elections are similarly deploying all sorts of transportation--from helicopters in cities to perennially trustworthy bullock carts in villages--to persuade citizens not to stay at home.

"Voting is the single most important thing any citizen can do in a democracy," Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told a rally in Orissa State on Wednesday. "It is an investment in our collective future."

The septuagenarian Vajpayee is expecting that his coalition will win, perhaps even carry more than 300 seats when the election results are announced on 13 May. He doesn't tire of pointing out that in the last five years since the coalition came to power, annual economic growth has averaged more than seven percent because of liberal policies that stressed the dismantling of the country's notorious license Raj. India's foreign-exchange reserves now stand at more than $110 billion--or almost a fifth of the gross national product--and the agriculture sector, the country's biggest, is flourishing after a record monsoon. Mr Vajpayee wants India to become an economic superpower by the year 2020--and for that to happen, he avers, the Congress Party mustn't be allowed to hold power again.

His animus toward the Congress isn't solely on account of the 119-year-old party's economic platform, which retains a socialist hue and emphasizes rural economic development and the empowerment of village councils and collectives. His opposition to the Congress isn't even largely the result of Mr. Vajpayee's belief that the Congress leader, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi--the 57-year-old widow of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi--isn't qualified to lead India.

Rather, Mr Vajpayee and his closest allies, such as Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani, contend that the Congress has deliberately distorted the BJP's position on secularism, painting the Hindu-based party as irrevocably opposed to sustaining full civil rights for India's Muslims. India has some 115 million Muslims, which may make them technically a minority in a nation of 1.1 billion people but whose culture and demographic dispersal make them an integral part of Indian society.

There's little doubt that the Congress's criticism is taken seriously by the coalition, some of whose members, such as the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Sevak Sangha (RSS) are less than fulsomely secular-minded. Perhaps that's why Mr Vajpayee himself has especially emphasized the historic contributions of Muslims to the Indian struggle for independence against the British six decades ago.

And he's emphasizing the diplomatic overtures that his administration has made to neighboring Pakistan, with whom India has fought three wars since the two countries gained independence in 1947. It may be serendipity, but the Indian cricket team's current--and successful--tour of Pakistan, the first by a national team in 20 years, has yielded a timely bonus for Mr. Vajpayee. "They don't play cricket in Italy," a BJP radio commercial said. Everyone here knew exactly what that meant.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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