India votes again amid heat over who will head UPA (Roundup)

April 23rd, 2009 - 8:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party New Delhi, April 23 (IANS) Millions voted all over India in round two of one of the country’s most intensely fought parliamentary elections even as the Congress and its allies traded barbs over the leadership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left remaining bitterly anti-Congress.
An estimated 50 percent of the 194 million electorate - of the country’s total 714 million voters - exercised their franchise in 140 constituencies in 12 states, from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the south.

The states which went to polls Thursday were Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. A total of 2,034 candidates were in the fray. Despite the searing heat, there were long queues at most of the 222,350 polling centres.

Thursday’s balloting, the biggest of the five rounds, covers states that are important for all key contestants including the ruling Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and allies of both the Congress and BJP.

The Election Commission and local authorities said the 10-hour exercise passed off mostly peacefully although Maoist guerrillas continued their rampage in Jharkhand. But unlike in the first round of polling April 16 when 19 people were killed, there were no fatalities this time.

Some violence also took place in Assam, in whose Guwahati city Prime Minister Manmohan Singh voted and asserted that the Congress would certainly form the next government.

“The Congress in Assam will win a thumping majority and there will be a Congress-led UPA government at the centre,” he told reporters confidently, although most pundits believe that the result of the 2009 ballot would be more splintered than the one in 2004.

While the prime minister got a vote of confidence from ally Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar made it clear that the UPA leadership would be decided only when the month-long election ends May 16.

“The only name in our mind for the prime ministerial candidate is Manmohan Singh,” Steel Minister Paswan said in his Bihar constituency Hajipur, adding that he was also speaking for Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad.

But Pawar, a politician with known links across the political spectrum, showed that he was on a different wavelength — a stand that has irked the Congress no end.

“Election and selection of the leader will be done collectively by the UPA,” Pawar said in reply to a question on whether Manmohan Singh would be the prime minister. He was speaking in Baramati in Maharashtra.

Even amid the Congress-UPA differences, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Prakash Karat maintained that the Left would never support a Congress-led government, come what may, although he did not react to the latest overtures from Paswan, Lalu Prasad and Pawar.

Paswan said he wanted the Left to join the secular camp. “We want the Left to come with the secular parties.”

Echoing him, Lalu Prasad expressed confidence that if the UPA fell short of a majority in the 545-member Lok Sabha, “we have kept open a window for the Left”.

Pawar was more firm, saying no government could be formed without support from the Left, which won over 60 seats in 2004 and whose tally is expected to drop this time by about 20 seats. But, in a split verdict, 40-odd seats would matter a lot.

The Communists, who withdrew support to the Congress-led government in July last year over the India-US nuclear deal, appear to be emerging as a key factor again in government formation.

But with Karat remaining vehemently anti-Congress, Manmohan Singh, who had only some days earlier made conciliatory remarks about the Left, refrained from making any comment Thursday when asked if his party would consider a post-poll tie-up with the Communists.

In Orissa, Biju Janata Dal (BJP) leader and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reiterated that he would never prop up a government led by the Congress or BJP. He said his preference was for a non-BJP and non-Congress government in New Delhi — a point repeatedly made by Marxist Karat.

Brisk voting also took place Thursday for the last of the two-phase polls in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa to elect new assemblies.

The most high-profile constituency which went to the polls Thursday was Amethi in Uttar Pradesh where Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is seeking re-election to the Lok Sabha.

Even as enthusiasm for the electoral exercise remained high all over the country, in Jammu and Kashmir the moderate wing of the separatist Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq Thursday asked people to stay away from the Lok Sabha polls.

“Elections have never been our agenda and that is why we called them a non-issue and have asked the people to stay away from these,” the Mirwaiz told reporters in Srinagar.

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