President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Thursday, April 30, 2009

So far so good in Indian Elections 2009

By M H Ahssan

As India enters the crucial round three of its month-long, five-phase parliamentary elections on Thursday, the electoral fate of the ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition and the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) prime ministerial candidate Lal Krishna Advani and 1,565 other candidates will be sealed by over 140 million voters.

While Gandhi looks comfortably positioned in her Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh, a traditional Nehru-Gandhi dynasty stronghold for over five decades, the Hindu nationalist BJP premier hopeful Advani isn't badly off either in Gandhinagar (Gujarat) where he has trounced his opponents in each election since 1991.

Other prominent political leaders in the fray in this phase include erstwhile prime minister H D Deve Gowda, Sharad Yadav (Madhepura), Shahnawaz Hussein (Bhagalpur), Jyotiraditya Scindia (Guna) and Yashodhara Raje Scindia (Gwalior).

The third round of the polling will cover a swathe of 107 constituencies across 11 states and two union territories. Ballots will be cast for 26 seats in Gujarat, 16 in Madhya Pradesh, 15 in Uttar Pradesh, 14 in West Bengal, 11 each in Bihar and Karnataka, 10 in Maharashtra and one each in Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. This important polling phase will also witness the election of a new 32-member legislature in India's northeastern border state of Sikkim.

In the wake of this phase, polling will be wrapped up for 372 of the total 543 Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats. Observers point out that by this stage in the 2004 general elections, the National Democratic Alliance combine had bagged 45 seats while the now ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had scooped 30 and the left parties 19.

However, despite the evidence of past arithmetic, poll analysts assert that voter turnout could still swing things either way.

It's quite another matter though that India's egregious heat (43 degrees Celsius plus) and an overall disenchantment with the political class have acted as a dampener for much of the electorate this year. As a result, voter turnout has been a modest 55% across the 12 states in the first two phases of the elections. However, there have been a few surprises, like Andhra Pradesh, which has recorded a turnout of over 68%. Analysts feel that Andhra Pradesh, with a population of more than 70 million, may well turn out to be a key determinant in deciding who India's next ruler could be.

Orissa comes in a notch lower with a 62% turnout. However, the biggest surprise was Amethi (Uttar Pradesh), Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi's constituency. Despite the Congress machinery being pressed into full service to garner support for him, including his sister Priyanka Vadra's vigorous canvassing, the area recorded a tepid 40% turnout.

Interestingly, according to poll pundits, the lowest turnout for any Lok Sabha election in India was in 1952 (45.7%), while the highest - 64.1% - was witnessed in 1985. The last elections in 2004 saw 58.1% of the electorate turn up to cast their ballots.

Another unusual trend witnessed in this election has been the relatively better (58%) voter turnout of middle and upper class voters in urban areas. This is in direct contrast to past electoral traditions in India where it is usually the economically weaker sections which come out in droves to vote while the rich register abysmal turnouts of 40% or less.

Over the past four general elections since 1977, the trend has been that the poor have invariably voted in greater numbers than the country's upper classes with rural areas recording greater turnout than the urban pockets. This trend, concede poll analysts, contrasts starkly with Western nations where political participation - especially one's franchise - is taken very seriously by the educated and the empowered sections of society.

High turnout or not, election 2009 has also been significant for another reason: an unprecedented level of security with the deployment of over 3 million personnel to keep a strict eye on electoral proceedings. As a result, elections have more or less been peaceful, with only a few sporadic cases of violence. The only major trouble spots have been the Naxalite-affected areas of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, which witnessed the killing of 19 people across 86 polling stations. Here, Maoists had called for a boycott of the elections and carried out a series of attacks in mid-May.

Be that as it may, all eyes are now focused on May 16, when the poll results will start trickling in after two more rounds of polling. As a single-party government in India looks unlikely in the current scenario - with both the BJP and the Congress likely to fall short of the requisite magic numbers to form a government at the center - at least half a dozen smaller political parties, representing India's multifarious regions, castes and sub-castes, are set to lobby hard for key government positions. There is even a chance that one of their leaders may become next prime minister. And as is entirely expected, vigorous horse-trading will then commence for candidates who carry maximum political weight.

But significantly, unlike past coalitions, this time political alliances will be cobbled together only after all results have been announced. This will further heighten the uncertainty about what kind of political permutation will rule in Delhi. New alliances will need to be forged, and what cannot be entirely ruled out is a third front - a conglomerate of non-BJP and non-Congress parties - forming the government, leaving the two major national parties wringing their hands.

But more than the power-broking, what will be of most concern to the Indian electorate ultimately is the type of coalition government that will emerge out of the current chaos and alphabetical soup of regional parties. The more delicately poised the coalition, analysts say, the more cumbersome it will be for it to make politically contentious choices.
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