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Antigraft party faces test in India vote

Third phase of voting held in constituencies for a fifth of 543-seat lower house

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Published : 2014-04-10 20:50
Updated : 2014-04-10 20:50

NEW DELHI (AFP) ― India’s upstart antigraft party faced a key test Thursday as the national capital voted in the first major phase of the country’s marathon general elections.

The third phase of voting began at 7 a.m. in 91 constituencies, representing nearly a fifth of the 543-seat lower house, across the capital and 13 other states, including Maoist insurgency-hit eastern India.

But the main spotlight was on the Delhi birthplace of the Aam Aadmi Party, even if it may have lost some steam since it sensationally took power in the state in December.

“The enthusiasm, the hope has died. People have become disillusioned with them,” Delhi-based analyst Amulya Ganguli said.

The AAP has struggled to shake the “quitter” tag used by critics following the dramatic resignation of party chief Arvind Kejriwal just 49 days after he came to office as Delhi’s chief minister.
An Indian resident Ramjan (right) and his wife pose with their voting cards after casting their votes at a polling center in the village of Jaula in Muzaffarnagar district, India, Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap)

“They didn’t stay on to govern and their drama-creating behaviour put people off,” Ganguli said.

The nine-stage elections which kicked off Monday are expected to vault the Hindu nationalist opposition to power at a time of low economic growth, seething anger over widespread corruption and warnings about religious unrest.

Results are expected on May 16.

The 814-million-strong electorate is forecast to inflict a punishing defeat on the Congress party after its decade-long rule and elect the Bharatiya Janata Party led by conservative hardliner Narendra Modi.

The AAP is contesting its first general elections since it was spawned by a 2011 antigraft movement and rode a wave of public anger over a string of corruption scandals.

It has promised to clean up politics by weeding out politicians involved in criminal cases.

Nearly 10 percent of politicians who contested Monday’s first phase of elections have previous charges of attempted murder, rape and other crimes, according to advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.

Last month, the ADR said 37 percent of BJP candidates and 25 percent of the Congress hopefuls announced so far faced criminal cases.

The AAP has fielded over 400 candidates as it pushes ahead with its national ambitions and Kejriwal has pitted himself against Modi in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.

The AAP won 28 of 70 seats in its maiden Delhi state elections. Although analysts say there is little chance the party will replicate its success nationally, the AAP still hopes to win at least 100 seats and says it is confident of taking five of the seven up for grabs in Delhi.

But The Times of India warned that projection could be too optimistic.

“If AAP doesn’t get at least two to three seats in Delhi, political pundits will be writing its obituary,” it said in a front-page report from the capital.

“Unfortunately for it, there’s no guarantee it will notch up that many seats here.”

Delhi analyst Ganguli was also skeptical. “Votes will go into their opponents’ hands this time. I would be surprised if they win even 10 seats nationally,” he said.

There are mounting signs of disillusion with the AAP, with Kejriwal and several of his colleagues having been slapped or smeared with ink at rallies.

The party has made a point of campaigning without security in a bid to end the VIP culture of India’s elite.

Kejriwal, who adheres to independence icon Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence credo, has consistently forgiven his attackers. On Wednesday he went to the home of a man who slapped him, to hear his grievances.

Among the AAP candidates is Gandhi‘s grandson Rajmohan, Bollywood actor Gul Panag and former TV journalist Ashutosh.

Voters “realise the BJP and Congress are thoroughly corrupt and they want a change,” senior AAP leader Prashant Bhushan said, calling the party “the clean and honest alternative.”

Other keenly watched battles Thursday include the contest in Muzaffarnagar, the northern district that was the scene of religious riots last August that left 50 people dead and forced some 50,000 Muslims to flee to refugee camps.

Two members of Modi’s party who face criminal charges for inciting the riots are standing in Muzaffarnagar’s electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh state.

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