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THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

TERCENTENARY CELEBRATIONS
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I N D I A     V O T E S

News Analysis
Administration faltered by going soft on separatists
Dip in Valley vote: It’s more than indifference

Every time the Valley votes poorly, the blame is put on its people -- their usual heartlessness in the face of broken promises and lingering frustration in the wake of unresolved Kashmir issue. That way, it is easier to explain things.

A polling official arrives to submit EVMs at a counting centre in Leh in Jammu & Kashmir. — AFP

People’s Power
Climb every mountain, cross every stream
New Delhi, May 14
They trudged through sand dunes in the searing heat, climbed icy peaks and crossed treacherous waters to reach that one goal --- a polling station. From mountainous Lahaul and Spiti in the north to Lakshadweep islands in the south, officials and voters ensured that the great Indian election of 2009 was truly remarkable.





TIGHT VIGIL: A cop guards a centre where EVMs are stored in Amritsar. — Reuters

ELECTIONS 2009
They were everywhere... shooting sound bites
New Delhi, May 14
While the likes of LK Advani and Sonia Gandhi have led election campaigns before, there are people who, predictably or otherwise, emerged as prominent faces of campaigning this time.

Stars shining for smaller parties: Soothsayers
New Delhi, May 14
They aren’t quite pollsters, but astrologers are pundits for all seasons in India. And days before votes for the 15th Lok Sabha are counted on May 16, they predict “a hung house” and say the stars are shining for smaller parties.

Warhorses missing in action
New Delhi, May 14
Amid hate speeches and controversies, soundbytes and quotable quotes that marked the election 2009 campaign, it was difficult to notice the absence of a number of stalwarts. Some of them are:





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News Analysis
Administration faltered by going soft on separatists
Dip in Valley vote: It’s more than indifference
Aditi Tandon wrtites from Kashmir

Every time the Valley votes poorly, the blame is put on its people -- their usual heartlessness in the face of broken promises and lingering frustration in the wake of unresolved Kashmir issue. That way, it is easier to explain things.

But when a certain people vote phenomenally well in one election and poorly in the next one held just within four months, there ought to be more factors at play than just ‘voters’ indifference’.

That has been precisely the case in Kashmir this time, where poll percentages plummeted significantly, ranging from a whopping 10-fold fall in certain segments of Anantnag like Tral and Pampore to a general three-fold dip across the spectrum, as against the poll percentage in 2008 Assembly elections, which were held in tougher times, following the Amarnath Shrine board controversy. And yet, the overall turnout had then touched a 63 per cent mark, surprising skeptics, who had predicted a wave for boycott.

By contrast, the current Lok Sabha elections were held at a peaceful time, under an elected government, unlike last time when the Valley was under the Governor’s rule. But the election euphoria of the last year was missing this time around, with Srinagar in the grip of tension throughout the term of campaigning, despite the state government having placed the top Hurriyat leadership under house arrest.

The problem, perhaps, was this --- in their attempt to deal even-handedly with the separatists, the government did not go firm on them and cared little to monitor their channels of communication. The result --- they got ample opportunity to inflame passions by issuing repeated boycotts calls through posters and pamphlets.

Backed by the separatist top brass --- Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and JKLF chief Yasin Malik --- pro-freedom activists routinely pelted unsuspcting people and security forces with stones in Srinagar (Geelani publicly defended stone pelting as a mode of protest). When people got injured and damage was caused ot the public property, the security agencies resorted to tear gas shelling to contain the situation.

“Such conditions destroyed the mood for voting. They blunted people’s zeal to come out. One was surprised at 25 per cent polling in Anantnag, the most hotly contested seat. But the boycott was successful here and the trend was repeated in Srinagar and Baramulla,” observes Gul Mohd Wani, a political analyst, agreeing that the state government went soft on the separatists this time.

In the absence of preemptive action, pro-freedom leaders even managed to address anti-election rallies at the start of the poll process in the Valley this year. Geelani was arrested a month ago while he was addressing the people in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk; Mirwaiz held a press briefing at his Nigeen residence, asking for a boycott; Yasin Malik organised a boycott rally at Pulwama in Anantnag, before he was arrested on April 28, just two days before the polling in Anantnag. This was in contrast to 2008 when these leaders were placed under arrest for long months lest they damaged poll atmosphere.

But this time, the Mirwaiz went to the extent of invoking religious cadres against the purported siege of the Jama Masjid, which had to be closed down to prevent violence in times of election. Leading the so-called “victory rally” (due to low voting in Srinagar), he called for an election-rejection rally on May 21, a date he chose to ensure mass presence. It’s the death anniversary of slain separatist leaders Muhammad Farooq and Abdul Ghani Lone, the father of Sajjad Lone, who just contested from Baramulla LS seat.

Analyst Rashid Wani says the present separatist activism needs to be seen in the context of their search for relevance: “The separatists have always subjugated average Kashmiris, who lack the ability to critically analyse their motives. At this moment, they are desperate for an issue powerful enough to draw people to the roads --- something like the Amarnath controversy of 2008. If they succeed, they can make themselves heard in New Delhi, where a fresh government is about to take over. That’s why these rallies and calls.”

But issuing such calls would have been impossible five months ago, when the poll administration was far stronger than now, and Geelani, Mirwaiz and Malik were put under arrest before the electoral process began; they were done in under the Public Safety Act. Jammers were installed at all their residences, blocking their communication channels with the outside world and hence their chances of mobilising anti-election cadres. Over 72 arrests were made at that time and the police was under daily instruction to clear all the cities of incendiary posters that could hinder people’s right to vote and provoke violence in the name of “Kashmir’s freedom”. Some printing presses were also shut down and their materials seized.

Such preemptive action went a long way in ensuring a favourable poll atmosphere in the Valley, which then voted the way it wanted. But this time around, the Omar Abdullah government was found wanting in its handling of poll administration, with the separatists managing to run a parallel anti-election campaign in all the three LS segments. The JKLF cadres were particularly active on this front, with the outfit’s district presidents going door-to-door asking people not to vote.

Besides, the Hurriyat and JKLF swarmed cities and villages with inflammatory anti-election material that could be seen dotting the city centres in Srinagar and Baramulla even after the polls were over. Confiscation drives by the police were unheard of, even as the activists of Dukhtaran-e-Millat and Mirwaiz’s supporters openly flaunted anti-election posters, questioning the legality of elections in Kashmir.

In rural areas, JKLF cadres were campaigning till the last minute. Among them was Nisar Geelani, JKLF’s Baramulla president, who claimed to have covered the entire segment without facing arrest.

With the separatists on the loose and their supporters indulging in stone pelting --- on May 11, they damaged over 30 election vehicles, injuring scores of PDP workers at a rally in Baramulla --- the atmospherics for elections was not as favourable as could have been. Add to that the fear factor contributed by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM)’s boycott call and the LeT’s threat to punish the voters.

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People’s Power
Climb every mountain, cross every stream

New Delhi, May 14
They trudged through sand dunes in the searing heat, climbed icy peaks and crossed treacherous waters to reach that one goal --- a polling station. From mountainous Lahaul and Spiti in the north to Lakshadweep islands in the south, officials and voters ensured that the great Indian election of 2009 was truly remarkable.

The polling officials got there and then the voters, in the world’s greatest democratic exercise that started April 16 and ended May 13 --- counting day is on May 16 --- with most of the electorate of 714 million voting for a new Lok Sabha.

More than 700 parties vied for power in an exercise conducted through 1.36 million electronic voting machines (EVM) in 828,000 polling stations spread across 28 states and seven union territories. An estimated 1.2 million security personnel were on hand to ensure that the five-phase election went off peacefully.

It was a painstaking exercise that left out nobody --- not even the solitary voter in the Gir forest in Gujarat. Guru Bharatdasji Maharaj was the only voter at his polling station, but three poll officials went to collect his vote.

In hilly Arunachal Pradesh, there were four polling stations with just three voters each. The poll panel said the polling parties reached the polling stations on foot and they had to travel for three or four days from the nearest helipad or road.

In the mangrove forests of Sundarbans, too, voters crossed on boats the narrow creeks and water channels that criss-cross the delta, and exercised their franchise.

With the entire forested region criss-crossed by rivers, the Election Commission also ferried its officials and equipment on boats.

Boats were also the primary mode of transport in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep.

“The Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands is one constituency and is 700 km long. Many places require 35-40 hours journey by boats,” the Election Commission said.

The 105 polling booths in Lakshadweep were also accessible by boats only.

And, if in Minicoy Island, EVMs were ferried by helicopters, in Assam's Sonitpur district two bullock carts were kept on standby to transport poll material as the roads were not in good shape.

And in some areas of the state, tamed elephants were kept ready to carry polling personnel and EVMs in case of rains.

If the poll officials took special steps, some voters went the extra mile to exercise their franchise. In Udaipur, a groom rode up to a polling station on a white mare, saying he had to vote on the way to his marriage. Another man who rode to the polling station was Bhadaru in Kasumpti, Himachal Pradesh.

Why did he have to ride? Because he was 127 years old, a man who had voted in independent India's first election in 1952.Porters had to be engaged for carrying the polling materials for five polling stations in Assam’s Bokaijan district. Getting there involved a 40 km trek through an area infested with wild elephants.

Likewise, about 67 boats were used to ferry officials and polling material in voting stations located on remote sandbars along the Brahmaputra river.

It was a similar uphill task in other places too.Like in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, where poll officials trekked 12 km up the Himalayas to reach the polling station at Srikhola. Once they reached, they had neither electricity nor piped water, just like the 692 registered voters.

In Himachal Pradesh’s tribal belt of Kinnaur as well, the ballot involved a trek through miles of rugged, cold and inhospitable Himalayan terrain and a chilly night at the polling station before election day. The deserts of Rajasthan took their toll too. In Jaisalmer district, the EC set up six mobile booths to facilitate voters in the Barmer parliamentary constituency, spread over 71,601 square km in the desert districts of Barmer and Jaisalmer near the India-Pakistan border.

As the nation and the world await the outcome of the exercise that will herald a new government for India, all this and more is just par for the course. — IANS

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ELECTIONS 2009
They were everywhere... shooting sound bites

New Delhi, May 14
While the likes of LK Advani and Sonia Gandhi have led election campaigns before, there are people who, predictably or otherwise, emerged as prominent faces of campaigning this time

Manmohan Singh

This was the first time the soft-spoken academician-turned- bureaucrat- turned- politician led the Congress campaign. He criss-crossed the country and took on the BJP’s PM-in-waiting Advani with the choicest of barbs and ripostes. And all this after a multiple bypass surgery.

Varun Gandhi

The 29-year-old used to be known as the son of late Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi and as a budding poet. But then his mother and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi vacated her Pilibhit constituency for him and things changed. Several reported hate speeches later, Varun was making headlines in March and overshadowing prime ministerial candidates in terms of news.

Rahul Gandhi

The Congress general secretary led thecampaign to connect the grand old party with young voters. With controlled aggression, he took on one and all, especially Modi, who had called him a jersey bull in the 2004 campaign. He was one of the stars of the 2009 campaign.

Narendra Modi

After his second victory in the Gujarat Assembly polls in 2007, he was bound to emerge as the BJP's lead campaigner. He did and the allies worried about their secular credentials mostly looked the other way. Arguably to counter the Rahul Gandhi-as-next-prime minister line of the Congress, some BJP leaders even floated Modi’s name as the part’s next prime ministerial candidate. — IANS

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Stars shining for smaller parties: Soothsayers

New Delhi, May 14
They aren’t quite pollsters, but astrologers are pundits for all seasons in India. And days before votes for the 15th Lok Sabha are counted on May 16, they predict “a hung house” and say the stars are shining for smaller parties.

“Neither the Congress nor the BJP will be able to form a government. The Congress at the most will get 135-140 seats, while the BJP might gain marginally with 165 seats,” Delhi-based astrologer Prem Kumar Sharma, a popular television commentator on spirituality and astrology, said.

“The Third Front and the smaller parties will play an important role in forming the government as the alliances will hunt for new friends,” he added.

He said the Prime Minister would not be able to continue and the churning might throw up a surprise prime ministerial candidate. “But the Third or Fourth (whatever you call it) Front will play an important role,” Sharma said.

He said the mandate would be “indecisive” because the planet Venus was in ascendance, along with its attendant moon.

Commenting on the personal horoscope of the leaders, he said the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) prime ministerial candidate LK Advani might come very close to power, but would miss it by a whisker.

“The position of the Saturn in his personal horoscope is powerful, but it will not get him to the hot seat this time. The day he filed his nomination was not good,” Sharma said.

He also foresees “trouble after the first quarter of the formation of the new government”. “There will be another election in two years’ time which will bring a stable government,” Sharma explained. The time and the date of announcing the polls were not auspicious, the astrologer said. The financial condition would, however, improve.

Acharya Chakradhar, a spiritualist and astrologer, also predicts another poll. “The country may face another election in 2011,” he said. The astrologer, who feels that Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s personal horoscope is strong enough to guide the party through the political melee, advises the country to guard its southern borders. — IANS

Predict results, win Rs 25 lakh

Kolkata: Putting astrologers to test, a city-based NGO has promised a reward of Rs 25 lakh to any soothsayer who predicts the result of Lok Sabha elections before the counting begins on Saturday.

“We have put two questions before them. First, they have to foretell exactly how many seats will be acquired by major political parties like the Congress, BJP, TC, CPM, BSP, RJD, SP, DMK and the AIADMK. Secondly, they have to predict the margin of victory or loss of big leaders like Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan,” chief of the Science and Rationalists Association of India (SRAI), Prabir Ghosh said. — PTI

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Warhorses missing in action

New Delhi, May 14
Amid hate speeches and controversies, soundbytes and quotable quotes that marked the election 2009 campaign, it was difficult to notice the absence of a number of stalwarts. Some of them are:

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Time was when people waited for hours to listen to the speech of Vajpayee, one of the best orators in Indian politics. But the former prime minister did not even contest this time due to poor health.

Somnath Chatterjee

One of the most accomplished parliamentary orators and the speaker of the outgoing Lok Sabha will not be a member of the next house. His Bolpur constituency in West Bengal has become a reserved seat post delimitation, and his Communist Party of India-Marxist has sacked him as part of disciplinary action.

Shivraj Patil

As Home Minister till December, Patil was the man in the hot seat as the country faced a number of Maoist strikes and a series of terrorist attacks. He was forced to quit after 26/11 Mumbai mayhem. He has not been heard of afterwards.

Govindacharya, Uma Bharati

Govindacharya was an influential ideologue of the BJP and Uma Bharati one of the party's firebrand orators who went on to become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and a central minister. But both are out of the party now. — IANS

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