GHAZIPUR, INDIA // In the blistering heat, thousands of voters queued up from early morning yesterday in this ramshackle town in eastern Uttar Pradesh to elect their representative in the Indian Parliament from among 15 candidates, marking the start of the world's biggest democratic poll. The streets were festooned with election banners, bunting, and political flags. The first phase of India's 15th general election commenced across 17 Indian states - from Kashmir in the north to Kerala in the south - with millions voting to elect 124 members of parliament.
The entire country will vote in a five-stage process requiring nearly a month to complete, involving 714 million registered voters who will cast their ballot in over eight million polling stations. Since the previous election in 2004, more than 43m voters, the majority of them young, have been added to the electoral roll. This marathon election process demands formidable security measures. In the aftermath of last year's Mumbai terrorist assault, security has been beefed up for these elections; 250,000 paramilitary forces are handling election security. The pressure on security forces is so intense that the avidly watched Indian Premier League, the popular Twenty20 cricket programme, was shifted out of India because it clashed with the poll dates.
But despite the stringent security, Maoist rebels, called Naxalites, attacked nearly a dozen polling stations across Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa, all rebel-prone states in eastern India, killing 17 people, including five election officials and 10 security personnel. They set afire some of the polling booths and snatched electronic voting machines and blocked roads leading to polling stations, thus disrupting the democratic process.
The rebel attacks are symptomatic of the difficulty in holding elections freely and fairly in this democracy of 1.2 billion. This Maoist insurgency, active in 156 districts across 13 Indian states, is perceived as the most serious internal security threat in India. In the first phase, voting took place in large swathes of northern and eastern India including areas beset by a range of violent insurgencies involving Maoist rebels.
More than 200 polling stations were set up in these areas, where polling was closed two hours early as a security precaution. The turnout was between 58 per cent to 60 per cent, according to India's Election Commission. Indian elections are not dominated by a single personality, but several independent candidates and essentially three main groups of political parties: the United Progressive Alliance, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty led the Congress Party; the National Democratic Alliance, which is a lose coalition of parties led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata; and the Third Front, centred on the Communists.
Analysts predict neither the ruling Congress Party nor the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party will win enough seats to rule alone and a coalition government is inevitable - a trend that has been the norm since 1989. Sixteen per cent of 1,425 candidates contesting in the first phase have criminal charges against them, according to research by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organisation.
Bihar leads the list with 51 criminal-charged candidates out of 200 candidates, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 46 out of 268. In Jaunpur, in the criminal heartland of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the body of Bahudar Sonkar, a candidate from the Indian Justice Party was found dangling from a tree near a Sufi shrine earlier this week. Rival candidate Dhananjay Singh, from Kumari Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, who faces at least 25 criminal charges, including murder, denies he had anything to do with it, but the incident has sparked concerns over the security of candidates contesting the elections.
The deteriorating economy, which threatens to relegate millions of Indians back to poverty, is also a key voting plank in these elections, political pundits say. India's Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates that Indian businesses could lay off nearly 25 per cent of their workforce in 2009 across such areas as information technology, real estate, construction, aviation and financial services.
Approximately 40m middle-class workers are employed by these sectors. India's labour ministry estimates that the small-business sector, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of economic activity. lost about half a million jobs in the December quarter. In these elections, the spectre of job losses is worrying the Congress-led UPA government. Lal Krishan Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janta Party in India's Parliament, recently said job cuts due to the global recession were posing "more danger than terrorism". There is fear that mass layoffs could spark social turmoil this country.
"The deteriorating economy will certainly have an impact on the electorate," Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of India's planning commission, said in an interview. "There will be no surprises on that front." In a pre-election nationwide poll conducted in January by CNN IBN, a private news channel, said 32 per cent of Indians cited the flailing economy and inflation as their top concerns. But, Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, who helped conduct that poll, said he would not link that assertion to the global economic meltdown.
"If we had conducted the poll a year ago, when the economy was booming, we would have got the same response," he said. Less than 10 per cent of Indians work in the organised sector, which is directly impacted by the global economic meltdown. "India's economic boom bypasses the rest, and they are not impacted by the global slowdown," he said. "For them, livelihood, poverty and a lack of purchasing power were issues in all previous elections. And it's no different this time."