Voting in India's badlands

On the first day of the elections, Peter Popham takes to the road

I SET OFF yesterday morning for the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, with booth-capturing history-sheeters on my mind.

Two hundred and twenty two of India's 545 constituencies voted in the general election, including Delhi, and much of the north. In several nearby constituencies, "history-sheeters" - people with a long history of being charged with crimes, or "charge-sheeted" as the Hinglish term has it - are standing for election.

Elsewhere, confirmed gangsters, kidnappers and murderers operate with the protection of MPs. One way such people influence election results is by "booth-capturing" - staging raids on polling stations, setting them on fire, seizing ballot papers, marking them for their favoured candidate and stuffing the boxes; even (as happened in Bihar state yesterday), strangling the polling officer.

But India has 900,000 polling stations staffed by 4.5 million election officials, so one's chances of stumbling upon something gruesomely irregular are slim. I tried to improve the odds by going first to Ghaziabad, a ramshackle city an hour east of Delhi, where trouble was expected.

At the entrance of a half-built school, police with breech-loading rifles looked on laconically as the citizens filed in. The procedure at an Indian polling station is as follows. You present yourself, preferably but not compulsorily armed with identification, at a table manned by supporters of your favoured party, who check your name on a list, cross it off and give you a slip. At another table, a non-partisan polling official takes the slip, checks your name a second time, hands over a ballot paper and puts a streak of indelible ink across the index fingernail to deter you from coming back for more.

How voters who are not known supporters of a particular party get past the first table was not apparent, but I was assured that it is possible. At Ghaziabad no boxes were on fire so I soon drove on. At the next polling station I visited all was not absolutely well.

Noida is another raw new town east of Delhi. As in Ghaziabad, politics and crime are closely interfolded here, with organised gangsters protected by political patrons and therefore strongly motivated to see that their patrons win.

Unlike Ghaziabad, security was genuinely tight here, traffic barred from entering the area, the press among the few exempt. Noida supposedly had 111 "supersensitive" polling stations where high security was in force. The one I visited was calm. But when I asked who was winning, the polling officer answered rather too quickly, "The BJP by a mile!" and smirked. If a BJP partisan was in control of the polling station, no amount of police could prevent the election being rigged.

Saturday's series of explosions in the southern city of Coimbatore, in which 48 people died, many at a BJP campaign rally, raised fears that this election might be marred by an upsurge of Hindu versus Muslim communal violence. So far that has yet to happen. In Bihar, where the polling officer was strangled, 12 other people died in polling day violence yesterday. And while there are four more polling days to come before counting begins on 8 March, my third polling station of the day offered some tantalising suggestions.

Chandni Chowk is a constituency in the medieval city of Old Delhi, a predominantly Muslim place and one of only two constituencies in the capital not held by the BJP. But here it became apparent that the conciliatory line adopted during this campaign by the BJP towards Muslims is beginning to bear fruit.

With its roots in militant Hindu nationalism, the BJP has always been anathema to Muslims. But for the first time, judging by the people I spoke to, Muslims are coming over to them in considerable numbers. One elderly Muslim man said without hesitation: "I voted BJP because they are doing a good job, and they are trying hard to please us." India's Muslim minority about 150 million strong. If this trend were to be reflected nationwide, the BJP would romp home.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?