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.

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