India readies for electoral semis, Kashmir out of poll exercise (Roundup)

October 14th, 2008 - 8:12 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Oct 14 (IANS) In the backdrop of communal clashes and market meltdowns, India Tuesday prepared for a mini general election with the Election Commission announcing polls in five states from Nov 14 - but deferred a decision on Jammu and Kashmir.In what is being considered a dress rehearsal before the parliamentary elections due early next year, the poll panel announced dates for elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Mizoram and Maoist-affected Chhattisgarh. However, Jammu and Kashmir, which has been under governor’s rule since July was left out of the exercise despite discussions with political leaders from the state and the home ministry.

According to the election schedule, polls will be held in two phases in insurgency-plagued Chhattisgarh on Nov 14 and 20; Madhya Pradesh will go to the polls on Nov 25; elections in Delhi and Mizoram will be held on Nov 29, while in Rajasthan the exercise will be held on Dec 4.

Counting in all five states will be held Dec 8 and the model code of conduct came into effect immediately in all the states, Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami told reporters at a press conference.

About the volatile state of Jammu and Kashmir, he said: “We are still assessing the situation. Positioning security forces is part of the problem but there are other factors and we will get back as soon as we decide.”

Factoring the troubled backdrop in which these elections are being held, the CEC said political parties should not appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes.

“Mosques, churches, temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.”

The elections, being held amid increasing instances of terrorist attacks and sectarian violence in several parts of the country, are being seen as a litmus test for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which is in its final lap before national elections next year.

The battlelines have been drawn in the five states — BJP rules the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the western state of Rajasthan while the Congress party rules Delhi. Mizoram is ruled by a regional party, the Mizo National Front.

The BJP got a new talking point with Jammu and Kashmir being left out of the exercise.

“The Election Commission must clarify why poll dates were deferred in Jammu and Kashmir… By doing this we are telling the world that India is incapable of conducting polls in the state and have bowed to separatists,” said BJP leader Arun Jaitley.

Another party leader, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, was optimistic about his party’s prospects: “We will prove that incumbency is for us and are confident of winning in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The political situation in Delhi is also in favour of the BJP.”

The Congress, which since January 2007 has lost seven of the 11 state polls, also exuded confidence.

“We will go to the people seeking their mandate in five states. It will be an endeavour for us to get rid of anti-people governments in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan,” said Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari, refusing to comment on the Jammu and Kashmir decision saying the poll panel was the “best judge”.

While the central leaderships of the two main parties strategised, the announcement of the election dates led to varied reactions in the states.

In Jammu, for instance, news that there would be no elections in the state led to resentment amongst the people who were looking forward to polls on schedule towards the end of November.

“The Election Commission has demonstrated its Kashmir-centric attitude by not deciding about the polls,” commented political science student Vijay Sharma. “The ground situation is definitely better than when polls were held in 1996 or 2002,” he added.

In Chhattisgarh, both the Congress and the BJP were of the view that elections were being held earlier than they thought. A BJP leader said the state was going to the polls two weeks earlier and the party had yet to shortlist its candidates for the 90-member assembly.

Congress spokesperson Ramesh Varlyani agreed and said: “… As a political party we are always geared for polls, but it’s surely two weeks earlier than our expectations.”

In the national capital Delhi, where Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit is going to bid for a third consecutive term, the party was upbeat.

Up against the BJP’s veteran leader V.K. Malhotra, Dikshit said: “We are ready and happy that the suspense has ended… For 10 years, we have worked for the people of Delhi. We would like to take this work forward.”

Malhotra seemed to echo her when he said: “Our party is ready and we hope we will win with a two-third majority.”

The weeks ahead will see more rhetoric as parties finalise their candidates and ready for the electoral battle.

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