Amid acrimony, campaigning ends for start of Indian vote (Roundup)

April 14th, 2009 - 9:08 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party New Delhi, April 14 (IANS) Campaigning for the first phase of Lok Sabha elections ended Tuesday evening in 15 states and two union territories as the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) traded fresh charges ahead of a tough battle tipped to throw up another hung parliament.
Electioneering ended at 5 p.m. in 124 of the 543 elected constituencies where 1,715 candidates are in the fray. A total of 143 million people will be eligible to vote in the first phase Thursday.

The states going to the polls in full or part are Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The union territories are Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as Lakshadweep.

The authorities have designated 23,000 villages and hamlets as “vulnerable” to violence. Although polling will take place from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be curtailed timings in violence-prone areas.

With no single issue dominating this year’s parliamentary elections, the Congress and the BJP and their allies as well as those making up what have come to be known as Third Front and Fourth Front have at times attacked one another personally.

The aggression has become acute since no single political party or even coalition is expected to get a majority in the Lok Sabha in the five-phase elections.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi launched a fresh diatribe against BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, prompting the BJP to hit back and dub Manmohan Singh a “caretaker prime minister”.

Addressing an election rally in Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, Sonia Gandhi asked why Advani did not quit over the release of three jailed terrorists in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane in 1999 if he had not been consulted about the swap.

“If such a big conspiracy was hatched, with terrorists being taken to Kandahar without his knowledge, why did he not resign?” she asked. Renu Jogi, wife of former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, is contesting from Bilaspur, about 100 km from Raipur.

Sonia Gandhi argued that only the Congress, India’s oldest political party, could provide a stable, strong and able leadership, under Manmohan Singh’s leadership.

Smarting under a concerted attack on Advani by the Gandhis, the BJP reacted Tuesday.

“The orchestrated and synchronised verbal assault on Advani’s leadership qualities and credentials by Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi is … a clear reflection of the desperation and frustration gripping the leadership of the Congress,” BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said in New Delhi.

“Manmohan Singh is at best a glorified caretaker of the post of prime minister keeping it warm for some one else,” he said, referring to general secretary Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.

In New Delhi, Advani took another potshot at the Congress, accusing it of ignoring B.R. Ambedkar. Tuesday is the Dalit icon’s birth anniversary. “The Congress did not do justice to Ambedkar. He could have been sent to the Lok Sabha but was defeated under a plan.”

In Talwandi Sabo in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi renewed his attack on Advani, also on the Kandahar episode.

“Advaniji says he did not know about the decision to release the terrorists. Why he did not know about such an important issue? Either (then prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayeeji did not trust him or he (Advani) is not telling the truth,” Gandhi told a rally 250 km from Chandigarh.

Rahul Gandhi’s 10-minute speech in Hindi was full of praise for Manmohan Singh, India’s first Sikh prime minister. “Manmohan Singh is the pride of Punjab, Sikhs and India.”

In Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi called Manmohan Singh a “strong and determined” leader. “You cannot judge a person’s strength from his external personality,” she said. “Mahatma Gandhi was so gentle but was so strong from inside. Manmohan Singh is very strong and determined.”

Speaking later in Jammu and Kashmir, Rahul Gandhi said the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government should get due credit for the return of peace in the Muslim-majority state.

In Chennai, AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha clarified that she had no desire to be the prime minister while Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Prakash Karat conceded that the Left would face a tough challenge in West Bengal.

Asked if she had a desire to rule India, Jayalalitha told Times Now TV channel: “I do not have any personal ambition.” She insisted that her aim was to see a non-Congress, non-BJP government post-elections.

In Kolkata, a frank Karat told reporters: “My party’s assessment is that we’ll have a tough battle. One reason is the alliance between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.” But he insisted that the Left Front would still win a majority of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats.

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