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Indians Begin Voting In Massive Month-Long Elections

Women cast their votes at a polling station in Uttar Pradesh.
Women cast their votes at a polling station in Uttar Pradesh.
Millions of voters have gone to the polls to vote in the first phase of India’s month-long parliamentary elections.

Opinion polls place the governing coalition led by the Indian National Congress slightly ahead of the rival right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition. Some observers say that a third bloc consisting of mostly leftist parties might make a surprisingly strong showing.

Voting took place on April 16 in 124 constituencies in 17 states and regions -- mostly concentrated in southern, southeastern, and eastern India. Despite massive security arrangements, 17 people were killed in attacks blamed on Maoist rebels in the state of Orissa, but the estimated turnout remained near the traditional 60 percent.

More than 700 million people are eligible to vote in the five phases of the election. The leader of Congress and current prime minister, 76-year-old Manmohan Singh, and his BJP rival, octogenarian L.K. Advani, will likely have to wait until early June to learn who will assume the office of prime minister.

While the bloody terrorist attacks that took place in Mumbai on November 26-29, 2008, dominated international headlines for weeks, local issues rather than national ones are expected to determine the outcome of these elections, according to Siddharth Varadarajan, associate editor of India's leading English-language newspaper "The Hindu" in New Delhi.

"The right-wing opposition party -- the Bharatiya Janata Party -- tried in the initial phases of this election to make terrorism and the government's supposedly weak handling of the threat a major campaign issue. But that doesn't seem to have excited the country as a whole, or even areas where these kinds of incidents have happened,” Varadarajan said. “I think this election is being fought largely on the basis of broad national issues, including the economic crisis [and] the government's handling of the economic hardship. Plus, of course, a host of regional local issues that are specific to particular constituencies."

Chance For Warmer Ties

The cautious liberalization policies of successive Indian governments during the past two decades have brought an unprecedented economic boom and raised India's international standing. But while New Delhi has moved toward becoming a strategic partner of the West and improved ties with Beijing, its ties with Pakistan nosedived as the Mumbai attacks derailed a four-year peace process.

Varadarajan, however, sees a postelection easing of tensions between the two South Asian rivals.

"On the India-Pakistan front, I think, if the Congress or the third front do well, I will expect an easing of the tensions after the elections -- provided, of course, Pakistan maintains it current level of cooperation in the antiterror fight. If the Bharatiya Janata Party wins...even there it is hard to see what avenues for escalation exist,” Varadarajan said.

He continued: “Perhaps it will take longer to deescalate the current tenseness, but eventually relations between India and Pakistan will settle along a golden mean of limited engagement or rather calibrated engagement on the basis of the extent to which the Indian state feels Pakistan is serious about fighting terrorist groups."

In recent years, the two South Asian rivals have moved their strategic competition to a new arena -- Afghanistan. Philip Oldenburg, a South Asia expert at Columbia University in New York, suggests though while "the Indians see themselves acting for the Afghan people," New Delhi's interest in Afghanistan is rooted in its rivalry with Pakistan.

"Obviously, a strong and independent Afghan government is something that will help India to advance its relationship with Pakistan, in the sense of being able to have leverage over Pakistan,” Oldenburg said. “So there is a foreign-policy dimension to it. Again, I don't see any difference between various party coalitions [contesting the elections]. In fact, I believe this policy is one which has been set by the bureaucrats of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and is followed through by political approval."

Regional Strategy

Varadarajan suggests that ending the New Delhi-Islamabad competition would contribute to the success of U.S. President Barack Obama's new "Af-Pak" strategy, which envisions an enhanced Indian role for stability and antiterrorism cooperation in the region.

"One of the saddest aspects of the decades-long crisis in Afghanistan has been that both New Delhi and Islamabad look at the country as an arena for strategic competition,” he said. “The Pakistanis are looking for what they call 'strategic depth' in their confrontation or conflict with India. And the Indians look at Afghanistan as a country which could, in some sense, create problems for Pakistan and hence weaken it.”

“If some kind of understanding can be reached, ideally between the two of them, this could pave the way for a more fruitful and more effective engagement by India, and I think by Pakistan as well," Varadarajan said.

Despite being the world’s largest democracy, the Indian model is not emulated in its immediate neighborhood. Hilal Ahmed, an expert in Indian political affairs with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi, tells RFE/RL that Indian democracy is based on development at the grassroots level, while the kind of institutions that have evolved in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia have "failed to respond to the growing demand emerging from below."

"Unlike Western forms of democracy, Indian democracy is much more concerned with welfare and developmental issues at various levels,” Ahmed said. “And unlike India, for example in the case of Pakistan, you find that stability is more important. The stability of political institutions is crucial and important."

India has had mixed success in promoting regional trade and in convincing its neighbors to accept its leadership. Oldenburg suggests that its so-called "look east" policy has drawn it closer to the members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations.

But New Delhi's South Asian neighbors are concerned over the size of the Indian economy and feel that the lifting of regional trade barriers could overwhelm them. This, Oldenburg argues, prompts countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan to be wary of freeing up trade with India.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.