Deaths cast shadow over Indian election

STILL IN shock after bombing atrocities in the south left more than 50 people dead over the weekend, Indians began voting in their 12th general election today.

On Saturday evening, 17 bombs went off in the textile city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, killing 47 people and leaving more than 200 injured. The bombs sparked off widespread rioting and looting, and on Sunday six more people died when they tried to throw a bomb at police and it went off prematurely.

No group has claimed responsibility for the explosions, but police suspect Muslim fundamentalists to be behind them. Their target was a rally of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, which has a deeply antagonistic relationship with India's Muslim minority. The BJP was the power behind the demolition of a mosque on a Hindu holy site at Ayodhya in 1992. During the present campaign the BJP leadership have gone out of their way to try to assure Muslims of their kindly intentions, but the party's philosophy remains as chauvinistic as ever. Its hardline president, Lal Krishna Advani, was meant to be addressing the rally in Coimbatore at which the explosions occurred. He was saved from harm because his plane was three hours behind schedule.

Coimbatore was a smoking wreck over the weekend, the streets littered with broken glass and burned out vehicles, but it was not the only trouble spot. In Tripura in the north-east, three Congress party campaign workers were killed when a bomb they were making exploded. Secessionist violence is endemic in the north-east, and two candidates were murdered there in recent days. In 34 constituencies in the impoverished and lawless northern state of Bihar, where so-called "booth-capturing" - the seizing and stuffing of ballot boxes - is a common problem, troops have been ordered to shoot on sight anyone obstructing the democratic process.

Until the recent spate of violence, this was shaping up to be one of India's tamer elections. Enthusiasm had been dampened both by the fact that this is the second election in less than two years, and the fear that it will be just as inconclusive as the last one. But as the first of several polling days approached - 222 of the 545 constituencies will vote today, and all but two of the rest over the next four Mondays - passions have begun to rise.

The chief rivals for power are the nationalistic BJP, once again hoping to oust Congress decisively and replace them as India's natural party of government; Congress, steadily weakened over the past decade but with its prospects improved, no one can say how much, by the furious bout of campaigning by Sonia Gandhi over the past month; and the United Front, a coalition of centre-left parties which has held power for most of the past two years.

But additionally there are 36 regional parties and hundreds of smaller groupings, all jostling for power and influence. Congress has ruled India for all but five of the past 45 years, but with its long, slow decline, dozens of caste- or community-based parties have sprung into existence. Anyone who would rule at the centre must strike deals with some of these. This fact was borne home to the BJP after the election in 1996 when it gained the largest number of seats in the election and formed the government but failed to strike up any alliances and was brought down by a no-confidence motion less than a fortnight later.

The BJP is not about to make such a mistake again, and along with all the other big parties they have been feverishly making alliances over the weeks of the campaign. The BJP, for example, which is chronically weak in the south, has climbed into bed with a regional party, the AIADMK, led by a former film star called Jayalalitha who, as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was allegedly guilty of large-scale corruption, and is facing prosecution for these offences. She has already spent a considerable time behind bars, but has yet to face trial. Nonetheless, her "vote-bank" in the state remains large and robust, and the BJP is therefore glad to make friends with her. For her part, she is gambling on the BJP becoming the ruling party and ensuring that the cases pending against her are filed in the rubbish bin.

Such naked and cynical opportunism is a new tangent for the BJP, which until recently has prided itself on being the one party of principle. Now it is going the same prag matic and unedifying way as its rivals.

Yet despite such desperate measures, the latest opinion polls make it appear unlikely that the BJP will be able to achieve their definitive breakthrough. Nor, it appears, will Congress suffer its ultimate demise. Most analysts expect that the upshot of the election will be another hung parliament, and another fragile coalition.

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