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India's electoral process in question

Up to 3,000 Punjab police commandos will be deployed to beef-up security in Kashmir ahead of state elections  

By Mark Tully

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Just at the time when India is coming under international pressure to allow observers to watch the upcoming election in Kashmir, the government finds itself involved in controversies which cast doubts on the country's own polling processes.

India takes pride in its history, more than fifty years now, of holding elections.

Although prepared to send Indian observers to elections in other countries, it has told the United States and Britain that it doesn't need any lessons in elections itself and will not allow foreign observers to watch the Kashmir polling, which starts next month.

But by no means are Kashmiris confident that the election in their state will be free and fair.

They fear it will just rubber stamp the present arrangement under which the National Conference, the party of the Abdullah dynasty which dominates politics in Kashmir, governs the state and supports the coalition government in New Delhi.

The only uncertainty, they feel, is whether the present Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, will hand the crown to his charismatic son Omar.

Some smaller parties are refusing to take part in the election and those that are participating have asked that Abdullah's government be dissolved so that the National Conference is not in a position to misuse power during the campaign or polling.

That has been rejected by the Central government. So has the request by the smaller parties for the election to be postponed to give them time to reestablish their presence.

Activities strictly limited

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Until now their activities have been strictly limited by the security forces.

In the western state of Gujarat, the central government is also trying to dictate terms for an election, but there the Election Commission has put its foot down.

Shortly after the riots in Gujarat, during which television stations showed pictures of brutal attacks on Muslims by Hindus, the Chief Minister of the state, Narendra Modi, dissolved the assembly and called for an election, believing that the tension generated by the riots would be to his advantage.

Modi, who belongs to the Prime Minister's right wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, planned a communal campaign, maligning Muslims and other minorities, and alleging that the critics of his handling of the riots had insulted Gujarat.

But the Chief Election Commissioner visited the state and found Muslims driven from their homes during the riots had not been resettled, the electoral rolls had not been amended to take account of the migrations during the riots, and the law and order situation was still not normal.

So the commission said it would not be possible to hold the election in October, as Modi had wanted.

Smear campaign

Modi responded with a smear campaign against the Chief Election Commissioner suggesting that he was anti-Hindu because he came from a Christian family, and that he was in league with Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress Party who was born a Roman Catholic.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did express his disapproval of the campaign but couldn't bring himself to criticize Modi by name or to withdraw his support for the chief minister's election tactics.

Instead he sent the Election Commission's decision to the Supreme Court in the hope that it would be overturned there.

So Vajpayee found himself in the anomalous position of saying that no one should doubt the Commission's competence to conduct elections in Kashmir but questioning its judgment in Gujarat.

Elections have also led to a tussle between the government and the president.

Ordinance drafted

Kalam: Told not to question the ordinance
Kalam: Told not to question the ordinance  

Following a judgment of the Supreme Court insisting that voters had a right to know about any criminal charges or convictions against candidates in an election and their financial status too, members of parliament of all parties got together to draft an ordinance.

It turned out to be a much watered down version of the order issued by the Election Commission after the court's verdict.

President Abdul Kalam, who only assumed office last month, asked the government to explain why there was this discrepancy between the commission's order and the ordinance.

The government didn't answer the president's questions, merely telling him that because there was an all party consensus on the ordinance he should not question it.

Under the constitution the president could only question the ordinance once so he had to sign it when the government returned it to him.

Commenting on the unusual unity among MP's over the ordinance, one of India's leading political commentators, Inder Malhotra, wrote, "The bitter truth is that irrespective of which party or combination of parties is in office the doctrine of political power being equivalent to the licence to loot has taken deep roots in Indian polity."

That is why now three successive Chief Election Commissioners have sought to clean up Indian elections and that is why politicians of all parties have sought and are still seeking to undermine the authority of the Commission.




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