Fair play keeps polls calm

Indian elections: Millions vote in searing heat and cyclone

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Thursday 02 May 1996 23:02

Maybe it had to do with the orders for Indian police to shoot on sight. Or the "preventive" arrest of 300,000 suspected troublemakers around the country. But the second round of India's general elections passed off yesterday without the customary killings and hired thugs smashing up polling booths.

Heated election contests in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu were expected to spill into violence. Bihar is usually the most troublesome state at election time. The private armies of feudal landlords and revolutionary peasants have carved up this north Indian state along the Ganges river and, until yesterday, the winning candidate was not the man with the best record but he who could muster the biggest firepower.

Of the seven Indians killed during polling yesterday, six were from Bihar. Four died in clashes between rival political gangs, and the other two were would-be bombers who blew themselves up. In Andhra Pradesh, a police officer was killed by a landmine planted by Naxalite revolutionaries who oppose the elections. Officials said that having only seven deaths during this colossal democratic exercise, which covered 17 states and involved 220 million registered voters, was as close to a peaceful election as they dared to hope for.

The elections went off smoothly not only because of tight security - over 600,000 police and paramilitary forces were deployed for poll duty - but also because India's autocratic chief election commissioner, TN Seshan, has scared politicians into playing fairly. The politicians know that if they do not, Mr Seshan will disqualify them. He also brought in identity cards for registered voters and cut back sharply on election spending. Under his vigilance, it has been harder for politicians to rig the vote.

Braving temperatures of more than 38C in some western and northern states and a cyclone-force winds in the east, around 50 to 60 per cent of voters turned out. The third and final round of voting takes place on 7 May, and results will be announced on 10 May. But opinion polls, as well as the astrologers on whom most politicians seem to rely, all predict that India will be stuck with a hung parliament. The ruling Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, is expected to lose its majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (parliament). If so, Mr Rao, 73, is likely to be ousted as Congress party leader.

In the election run-up, Mr Rao has been dogged by bribery and housing scandals, his party lieutenants rebelled against him, and yesterday an arrest warrant was issued on the Prime Minister's favourite guru, Chandraswami.

A "godman", as the Indian press calls him, who is better known for his power-broking abilities than compassion, Chandraswami is accused of conspiracy to swindle $100,000 (pounds 66,500) from an Indian residing in Britain. Most damning of all for Mr Rao, the magistrate took a swipe at the Central Bureau of Investigation - which answers directly to the Prime Minister - for "dilly-dallying" in probing the swami's controversial activities.

The main opposition party, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, yesterday demanded Mr Rao resign even before the next round of polls. His campaign slogan is "Stability". But judging from the chaos in his party and government, many Indians are beginning to doubt whether Mr Rao can deliver the stability India so urgently needs.

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