India readies for polls By Nava Thakuria

India, known as the world’s largest democracy, starts national elections on Thursday, where over 900 million voters will participate in the biggest electoral exercise through electronic voting machines (EVM), a unique experience for the human race. The seven-phase general elections, from 11 April to 19 May, will send 543 public representatives to the 17th Lok Sabha, the powerful lower house of Indian Parliament.
The Election Commission of India (ECI), the world’s most powerful electoral institution, had announced the national poll schedule on 10 March 2019, and the electoral festival was kicked off for the billion-plus nation.
After completing a five-year term in office, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) will seek fresh mandate from the electorate, which would be clear on 23 May the counting day itself.
NDA nominees will primarily face candidates from the Congress-led coalition of opposition parties, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The third front, a loose coalition of some regional political parties across the country, named Mahagathbandhan, is expected to put challenges to both NDA and UPA candidates in selected constituencies.
In the last general elections, the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate (and present PM) Narendra Modi did almost magic that helped it win an absolute majority with 282 seats. NDA’s total tally increased up to 336 (out of the 545, with two members nominated). Congress shrank to 44 seats.
BJP’s aggression to the once disturbed northeastern region routed the Congress from any government in eight states. Till 2014, the Congress used to have provincial governments in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur and
Arunachal Pradesh. Now all the states, as well as Tripura and Nagaland, are ruled by ether BJP or its allies.
The region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet (China), Myanmar and Bangladesh, sends 25 members to Lok Sabha, but this time BJP leadership has taken this very seriously. BJP president Amit Shah claims his party along with allies will win over 20 seats from the region. The Congress has not made any claim but maintained its candidates will do fairly well.
Prime Minister Modi, the star BJP campaigner, keeps seeking votes for his developmental activities along with non-corrupt governance and security for the nation. Besides pledging more roads, airports, and other infrastructures, he promised more jobs for the youth. At the same time, Modi maintained that they would continue various welfare programmes like providing toilets, houses, cooking gas, crop insurance, loans for small businesses and also electricity connections.
A large section of socio-cultural activists and also non-resident Indians, started campaigning against the present Modi-led regime and urged the electorate to defeat him
On the other hand, the Congress leadership promised to make India poverty-free by 2030 with provisions of a minimum-income guarantee scheme, waiving peasant bank loans and creation of sustainable jobs. The party president Rahul Gandhi continues targeting PM Modi for failure in various aspects including in realising the earlier promise to create 10 million jobs every year for Indian nationals.
In the East, the Congress is expecting electoral benefits out of the ruling party’s citizenship amendment bill (CAB), which sparked massive reaction among northeastern ethnic groups. Most of the people in northeast India opposed the saffron plan to welcome persecuted religious asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had already entered the country before 31 December 2014.
CAB was successfully passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 January and was soon scheduled for Rajya Sabha. But it was not pushed forward by the Union government as the ruling party had no majority in the Rajya Sabha. So the initiative to amend the law lapsed with an embarrassment to the ruling party, which brought relief to all agitating leaders of the region. now the Congress wants political benefits from the CAB row.
The socio-political scenario had changed dramatically with the 14 February Pulwama terror attack. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility, which sent a massive wave of pain & anger among millions of patriotic Indians.
Public sentiments against JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar and his promoter, Pakistan, were fully exploited by Modi who launched a verbal war with Islamabad. His assertion was followed by sudden aerial attacks in Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on 26 February, where the IAF claimed to hit many JeM terror bases.
It need not be mentioned that any major elections in northeast India was synonymous with violence by insurgents, who had been fighting New Delhi for decades demanding self-rule to sovereignty. The separatist militant outfits even once dictated the people boycott the electoral process as they asserted it was a symbol of suppression by the colonial Indian forces.
Dreaded armed groups like United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) made it a habit to issue press statements threatening the voters with dire consequences if they chose to cast their votes. But the brave voters always exercised their franchise and hence lately the armed militants stopped issuing such statements. However, they secretly supported political party nominees in the polls.
But this time, both the factions of ULFA have shown reluctance in intervening over the polls. When the pro-talks faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa recently made it clear that they would not be a part of the electoral process, the other faction led by Paresh Baruah maintained silence over their involvement. Rather Baruah, while talking to local
media from his secret shelter somewhere near the Myanmar-China border, disclosed that they did a pre-poll survey where he saw BJP as a probable gainer.
Meanwhile, a large section of socio-cultural activists and also non-resident Indians, started campaigning against the present Modi-led regime and urged the electorate to defeat him with an aim to ‘defend the Constitution, democracy and human rights in India’. They in separate statements vehemently condemned Modi for ruining the country in the last five years using various means, where Muslims and Dalits continued to be unsafe.
“The BJP government has also been responsible for systematic erosion and weakening of democratic values and institutions like Reserve Bank of India, Central Bureau of Investigation, Election Commission of India etc. Conscious people of the country should take it as their call,” said a statement from a group of USA-based NRIs.
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