Bewildering bevy of choices in India's elections should make for interesting times

Reply Sat 25 Apr, 2009 08:41 pm
Bewildering bevy of choices in India's elections should make for interesting times

April 25, 2009

About ten days ago, India kicked off what Kanishk Tharoor at openIndia calls "the world's biggest exercise in democracy". Reuters has the colourful detail:

Some election officials rode elephants to remote polling stations near the Myanmar border. Other ballots were brought by two-day sea trips to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

In Varanasi, the northern sacred city on the Ganges River known for its Hindu gurus, many voters arrived on bicycles and bullock carts to cast electronic votes.

"Such is the size of national elections in a country of over one billion people," Tharoor writes, that results won't be in for a month, after voters in some 650 constituencies have voted in a five-phased process:

An electorate of 714 million will vote in over eight hundred thousand polling stations, choosing between candidates from 1,055 political parties [..]. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel will be mobilised to ensure the fairness and safety of the polls.

Mumbai voter reads an Indian National Congress election pamphlet - photo used under CC license from Al-Jazeera

Humbling numbers if you're used to fretting over a margin of a few hundred votes this way or that in [..] a special election in congressional district NY-20.

The result will, by all accounts, be appropriately bewildering. "India's elections are notoriously hard to predict and polls have been wrong in the past," Reuters reports; "exit polls are banned." What is clear is that the hegemony of the two main parties, the Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist BJP, is over.

Once, of course, Congress dominated the scene all by itself, from Nehru's times to those of Indira Gandhi. Its monopoly collapsed in 1989, when upper caste and middle class voters defected to the BJP. Since then the two parties have alternated in power, but only thanks to increasingly fractious coalitions. The incumbent, Congress-led UPA coalition encompassed twenty parties. The BJP-led government before it included 23 parties. As Sumantra Bose reports on openDemocracy:

[T]he United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has substantially unravelled in the run-up to the polls, as key regional allies have deserted the Congress. Further unravelling may be on the cards after 16 May. The BJP-led opposition coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), also rocked by the departure last month of one longstanding regional ally, is barely holding together, with further unraveling plausible in the post-poll scenario.

All of which may pave the way to a different face of Indian politics altogether. Regional parties, along with Leftist and caste-based national parties, Tharoor writes, "have in recent months formed a number of mercurial, fractious alliances under [..] fanciful monikers" like the "Third Front." It is "not totally inconceivable" that the next Prime Minister might come from its ranks. The Third Front, Bose explains, is masterminded by India's main communist party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) - but that party's own base is confined to just three of India's 28 states (West Bengal, Kerala and the tiny state of Tripura).

Some of these developments sound familiar enough.

Read on..
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Reply Sun 26 Apr, 2009 09:16 am
Thanks, nimh...
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Reply Sun 26 Apr, 2009 02:19 pm
hey - glad you thought it was interesting.. thanks for posting!
Reply Sun 26 Apr, 2009 02:57 pm
Well, I like to follow these things.. at least somewhat.

Hey, you got new eyes..
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Reply Sun 26 Apr, 2009 06:29 pm
Yes, I'm going through creatures quickly now ...

I've got a complementary post up now, btw, here's the beginning:


Don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde, aah, the Naxalites.

April 26, 2009

In all of the previous post about the bustling, if bewildering political landscape of India, I skipped over one of the most interesting parts - and one that adds to the volatility. The increasing grip on inland territories of Maoist guerrillas is not something widely associated with India - Nepal, sure, but India? Yet the so-called Naxalites control large swaths of India's rural heartland.

How much is somewhat hard to establish. The government and much of the media do like to lump any local recalcitrance in with the Maoists. When minor ethnic groups on the far borders of the country resist the central authorities, they're often labelled Maoist by default as well, whether or not there is a link - or so one of my fellow bloggers at Observationalism, who did mediation work in the northeastern state of Nagaland, said.

Naxal affected areas in India Moreover, while hardcore Maoist guerrillas do control extensive chunks of forested territory in east and southeast India, they arguably possess something of a hybrid identity. There's the ideology and rhetorics of revolutionary communism. But often they seem as much interested in petty banditism. Distant cousins, perhaps, of the FARC in Colombia, those revolutionary communists who turned into drug and war lords.

Still - India is no Colombia, obviously, but even so some 500 civilians and police were killed in insurgent clashes last year, Reuters reported. In 2006, Prime Minister Singh described Maoist violence as "the single biggest internal security challenge" faced by India. Sources quoted on Wikipedia put the number of guerrillas at 10-20,000 and claim "the guerrillas control an estimated one fifth of India's forests, as well as being active in 160 of the country's 604 administrative districts." See also the map to the right from the Indian news site IBNlive (click on the map and scroll down to see it in full size).

That's not peanuts. And when there are elections, they attack.

Reuters and this openDemocracy update report that Maoists killed at least seventeen people on the first polling day, April 16, attacking polling officials and security personnel across four states (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Orissa). Five election officials were killed in a landmine blast in Chhattisgarh's Rajnandgaon district, and seven Border Security Force personnel were killed in a landmine explosion in Jharkhand's Latehar district. Maoists opened gunfire at two polling stations, in the Gaya district of Bihar and in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, and there were further gun battles in two districts in Jharkhand state and a village in Chhattisgarh, where a police trooper was killed. Eight poll officials were kidnapped in Jharkhand. In Orissa state, Maoists raided four polling stations and set fire to voting machines. And that's just among other things. Reuters reported that "in some Maoist-hit areas people did not vote, fearing attacks by the rebels who had threatened to cut off their hands."

That, mind, was just the first of the five voting days that will take place before the month-long elections are complete. The Maoists hit international headlines this week, ahead of the second round of voting last Thursday, when up to 250 rebels seized a train carrying several hundred passengers as it travelled through Jharkhand state. [..]

Read on...

Made this map to go with the item:

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