Millions vote in Delhi state poll which could indicate how general election might play out

Turn-out for last of five local polls may have broken all previous records

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The Independent Online

Teenager Mohammed Sahil had never voted before in is life. But on Wednesday afternoon when he headed to the polling station he had few doubts about which party he would be supporting.

“I voted for the Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) party,” said the 18-year-old, sitting outside his family’s makeshift home in the centre of Delhi. “I hope the Aam Aadmi party will be able to solve my problems.”

Millions of people turned out to vote on Wednesday in a state poll that is being closely watched as a possible indicator to how a general election, due to be held by the spring, might play out.

The election for the Delhi state assembly is the last of five local polls being held before the general election and reports suggested the turn-out may have broken all previous records. And while the results of today’ vote are not due to  be announced until December 8, many people casting their vote said they wanted change.

“Prices are rising – vegetables, tomatoes, petrol,” said Mr Sahil, who works as a taxi driver. “My mother and father voted for the Congress party. I don’t like the Congress.”

It is the Congress party, headed by Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, which runs both the federal government and the Delhi state government. But they face a very stiff challenge both within India’s capital as well as nationally.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), appears to be riding on a wave of public interest generated by its charismatic but controversial leader Narendra Modi. Within Delhi, which the Congress has held for the past three terms, it faces competition not only from the BJP, but from the recently-formed Aam Aadmi party, which has highlighted price rises and corruption.

A handful of interviews can only ever provide a flavour of the public mood. But a number of voters on Wednesday said they were supporting the Aam Aadmi party and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official turned anti-corruption crusader, in order to try something new.

“The cost of everything is going up,” said a 27-year-old woman, Renu, who had cast her vote for the Aam Aadmi party at a polling booth in the constituency of the Congress chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.

She said she was considering voting for the BJP in next year’s general election but had wanted to give the new party an opportunity locally. “We are not sure, but we will give them a chance,” said Renu, who said she previously voted for the Congress party.

The battle for control of the Indian capital is always keenly contested, but this year’s vote is being particularly keenly watched, as many believe it could give a steer as to what could happen next year. Most exit polls taken on Wednesday suggested the BJP could win up to 30 seats in the 70-seat Delhi assembly, with the Congress in the mid 20s and the Aam Aadmi party getting up to 15.

“I don’t think the Delhi election is a bellwether in that the party that wins here need not necessarily presume things will go as well nationally in six months,” said Ashok Malik, a journalist and analyst.

He added: “However, if Sheila Dikshit takes the Congress to victory, she gives her party a potential prime ministerial candidate to take on Narendra Modi. If the BJP wins, it adds to the perception that the Congress has lost urban India to a newer generation of BJP politicians led by Modi. Thirdly, victory or defeat in Delhi will affect the morale of both the BJP and Congress.”

The Congress is scrambling to respond to Mr Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat who was made the BJP’s official candidate earlier this year. While many still accuse him of failing to prevent the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Modi has campaigned on a platform of being against corruption and in favour of development.

Meanwhile, the Congress government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has been fending off corruption scandals and claims that it has not done enough to introduce economic reforms that could revive a slowing economy.

It was reported that up to 66 per cent of voters turned out in Delhi, meaning that millions of people cast their vote at 11,753 polling stations. Security was tight, with 65,000 police officers and additional paramilitary troops on duty to prevent violence.