By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 17, 2009
NEW DELHI, April 16 -- Violence marred the start of the month-long national election in the world's largest democracy Thursday, as Indian voters cast ballots to choose a new government that will confront the twin challenges of the global economic slowdown and the growing threat of terrorism.
In 14 attacks on polling stations and vehicles carrying election officials, 17 people were killed in eastern and central India. The strikes were blamed on Maoist insurgents, who used land mines and rocket launchers. The Maoist groups had called for an election boycott in several areas and had vowed to disrupt the vote.
India's election commission said voter turnout ranged from 46 to 86 percent of the 140 million eligible voters in the 17 states that went to the polls Thursday. The turnout was lower in areas affected by violence.
The staggered, five-phase national election, which ends May 13, will cost an estimated $2 billion, with about 714 million voters. Vote-counting is scheduled for May 16, with 543 lawmakers being chosen for the lower house of Parliament. More than 6 million security and civil officials are responsible for helping to oversee the elections, and 1.3 million voting machines will be used.
The government deployed hundreds of thousands of police and paramilitary forces to guard polling stations, especially along thickly forested areas that security officials call India's "red corridor" because of the Maoist presence.
"Their political philosophy is such that they don't want to believe in democracy," M.L. Kumawat, director general of the Border Security Force, told reporters in New Delhi.
The attacks targeted security forces and polling officials, not voters. Helicopters were flown into some areas to evacuate soldiers who had come under fire. Maoists also destroyed electronic voting machines. The Maoist rebels are active in 17 of India's 28 states, and for four decades, they have been waging a low-grade insurgency that they say is intended to promote the rights of landless farmers and tribal people.
"The extent of violence is unprecedented and shows it will be a significant political and security challenge for the next government," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst at Delhi University. "In many parts of India, they run parallel governments."
The marathon election involves voting at polling booths from high in the Himalayas to remote islands in the Bay of Bengal. About 131 seats have been set aside for lower-caste candidates or members of indigenous tribes.
Opinion polls forecast that no party will gain a clear majority to form a government on its own. Analysts predict that a coalition of parties will be stitched together after the final results are announced next month.
The election features three primary political alliances: the ruling, left-of-center coalition led by the Congress party; the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led group; and a third bloc consisting of smaller, regional and communist parties.
The Congress party coalition -- headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Oxford-educated economist -- is appealing to voters by showcasing several anti-poverty programs that the government has launched. About 76 percent of Indians live on less than $2 a day.
But Singh is under attack from the opposition BJP for weakening the nation's security. Several Indian cities were rocked by bombings in 2008, culminating in a deadly three-day siege in the financial capital, Mumbai, that killed more than 170 people, including six Americans. The vote also comes as India battles a slowing economy after five years of heady growth.
The BJP, led by 82-year old party patriarch L.K. Advani, says it will clamp down on terrorism. But the party has been criticized for its role in fomenting violence against Muslims and Christians.
The third front includes a group of communist parties that supported Singh's coalition until last fall, when they withdrew to protest the signing of a controversial India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement.
Some economists have said the prospect of an unstable and unwieldy coalition government is worrisome for an economy that is saddled with job losses and the biggest fiscal deficit in two decades.
But not everybody agrees.
"It is a mishmash of different, smaller contests in the states that will eventually form the big, national picture in this election. But stimulating the economy will be a priority for whoever forms the government," said Rangarajan, the political analyst. "India has had coalition governments for more than a decade now. They are not a blessing from heaven, but they are not a complete disaster either."