The race of Delhi begins, but winner is anyone's guess
Although marred by Maoist violence, the first phase of the Indian elections can be said to have got off to a reasonably satisfactory start.delhi Updated: Apr 18, 2009 11:13 IST
Although marred by Maoist violence, the first phase of the Indian elections can be said to have got off to a reasonably satisfactory start.
In the context of the vastness of the exercise - an electorate of 714 million voting in 180,000 polling stations for 1,715 candidates in five phases for a month - the stray attacks carried out by the Maoist desperadoes are not expected to have much of a demoralising impact outside the affected areas despite the tragic loss of lives.
It is obvious that, unlike in the past when the "capturing" of booths by political hoodlums and violent inter-party clashes were the features of nearly every election, it is now the Maoists who pose the main challenge to a peaceful conduct of the polls.
That they were able to attack security personnel and polling stations in five states - Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Maharashtra - shows their continuing presence over a wide swathe. It also underlines the failure of the law-enforcing agencies to curb this menace.
However, in the overall scheme of things, their depredations will not be regarded as a major disruptive event. As much is evident from the continuing high percentages of the voter turnout, emphasising yet again the keen interest which the Indian electorate normally takes in exercising its franchise.
If the attendance has remained high through the years, the reason is that the voters have realised their power to bring about a regime change no matter how influential a party or a politician may be.
They also go out of their way to make a point, as in Orissa's Kandhamal this time where the percentage touched 90.
Since it was the region which was ravaged by the anti-Christian violence of the saffron storm-troopers associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal - two affiliates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the Christians, especially those still living in the relief camps, evidently wanted to lodge their protest via the ballot boxes.
It does not take much political acumen to predict that it will be the BJP which will be at the receiving end of their wrath, not least because two of the party's candidates - Manoj Pradhan and Ashok Sahu - have allegedly been involved in the violence.
Sahu is currently in jail for having delivered "hate" speeches. But, in Uttar Pradesh, another BJP candidate, Varun Gandhi, who was also incarcerated for the same offence, has recently been released on parole on the Supreme Court's orders after promising to be more restrained in future in his utterances.
The presence of these vocal anti-minority nominees in the BJP's list is seemingly indicative of the fact that the party has had to fall back on its old communal line after the loss of two of its favourite electoral planks - building the Ram temple at Ayodhya and countering Islamic terrorism.
The temple, of course, has retreated so much in the party's calculations that its star campaigner, Narendra Modi, did not even mention it in Faizabad and other constituencies near Ayodhya, much to the dismay of the Hindutva aficionados. But it is clearly the devaluation of the terror card which has hit the BJP the most.
The absence of these emotive issues probably explains the party's, and especially its prime ministerial candidate, L K Advani's, continuing emphasis on the "weakness" of Manmohan Singh as the prime minister in their campaign rhetoric.
However, the normally soft-spoken Singh has hit back with uncharacteristic sharpness by accusing Advani of three "failures" - "weeping" in a corner while the saffron hoods demolished the Babri masjid in Ayodhya, condoning Modi's pogrom in Gujarat as the union home minister, and losing his party president's post at the behest of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for his favourable comments on Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
If, by targeting Singh personally and even inviting him to a television debate, Advani had wanted to turn the contest into an American-style presidential battle, he has been the loser. Before trying this line, he should have remembered that those living in glass houses should not throw stones at others.
Singh may be weak in the sense that Congress president Sonia Gandhi is "stronger" as the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), but the BJP, too, is a "slave" of the RSS, as Sonia Gandhi has pointed out.
Perhaps the only disadvantage of the four weeks that are still left before the results are declared on May 16 is that the audience will be continually bombarded by the bitterness of the diatribes of the two major parties.
Since neither is expected to get a majority on its own, and nor will the alliances led by them - the UPA under the Congress and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of the BJP - there will also be endless speculation of their post-poll allies.
The role of the so-called Third Front will be crucial in this respect for, if the UPA and the NDA more or less retain their present compositions, any additional help can only come from the front. However, the latter's most notable characteristic is its amorphousness. It has neither a recognised leader, nor a specific agenda, apart from its desire to provide an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP.
Yet, the expectation in the Congress is that, in the ultimate analysis, there will be a tie-up between the UPA and the Left, as it was during four of the Manmohan Singh government's present five-year term. That this is not a pipedream is evident from the hints to this effect given by West Bengal Left Front chairman Biman Bose although Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), rules out such a possibility.
However, even Karat has said that the Third Front may not be averse to seeking the Congress's support to form a government. If that be the case, why not the other way round?