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Southern Swing State Could Hold Key to Indian Election



Voting begins Thursday in India's five-phase national election. The world's largest exercise in democracy, with 714 million eligible voters, is conducted over a month-long period. A key swing state is Andhra Pradesh, in the south, which has several regional parties.

The ballots cast in Andhra Pradesh state could be among the most critical nationwide. India's incumbent federal coalition government, led by the Congress Party, owes its existence to its performance here five years ago.

Illicit flow of cash, liquor on the increase as candidates try to win hearts of voters

In addition to caravans loaded with enthusiastic partisans, elections in Andhra Pradesh traditionally see political parties dispensing liberal amounts of cash and liquor prior to election day.

During this campaign season, authorities are trying to stem the illicit flow. Police are seizing piles of currency discovered during searches of vehicles on Hyderabad's roads.

The former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, K. Vijaya Rama Rao, a candidate of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is skeptical the traditional flow of cash and alcohol has evaporated.

"There is still a large chunk of unseen expenditures which most candidates seem to indulge in," said Rao.

Analysts, such as retired University of Vermont political science professor Carolyn Elliott, say such handouts maintain loyalty, rather than effectively gaining political converts.

"What everybody says about this liquor and money business is that they give it out to everybody and so it does not really matter," she said. "So then you ask, 'Well then why do they bother to do it?' And the politicians say, 'Well if the other does it and I do not, then I will certainly lose.'"

While some parties reward potential voters before casting ballots, others promise post-election personal windfalls.

An opposition group says it will give cash transfers of up to $50 to the poorest families, if it comes to power. It also promises them Chinese-made color television sets, worth about $100.
TDP candidate UA News the TV's would educate and inform the masses in a state where nearly half cannot read and write.

"It is to empower the poorer sections with information," he said. "And we have introduced this, and this is really going to revolutionize the normal living of the people who are at the lowest rung."

Upper House Member of Parliament K.B. Krishnamurthy, a top official of the Congress Party, tells VOA the populist pitch of cash and merchandise is a desperate move by politicians who failed to perform in their previous tenure in power.

"Now they are all of a sudden they are enlightened, and they want to come and give relief to people and promise people that rivers of milk and sugar are going to flow," he said.

Congress Party wants to repeat success in Andra Prades

Congress is trying to win re-election in Andhra Pradesh, with a population of 76 million people, and stay in power at the federal level. Its biggest threat is the four-party alliance led by the TDP. Challenging both is a wildly popular Telugu language movie idol, known as Chiranjeevi, who has formed his own party, Praja Rajyam or People's Rule Party.

The three-way power struggle, with a notable lack of difference on major issues, is being closely watched in the capital, former top national lawman K. Vijaya Rama Rao of the TDP tells VOA News.

"Whichever way the result goes here is quite vital in the formation of the government at the national level," said Rao.

The Congress Party, which led India to independence, dominated the national political stage for decades.

Expert says no single party will have power

Carolyn Elliott, who has been following Andhra Pradesh politics for nearly 50 years, says neither the Congress Party nor any single challenger will be able to retain or regain power without outside help.

"The trend in Indian politics, which many have commented on, is that these regional parties are getting to be much more powerful and are really very influential in what will happen in Delhi," she said.

In Andhra Pradesh, as politician Krishnamurthy explains, his party, Congress, finds itself in the unenviable position of going to the polls without such support.

"For political reasons our companions, who walked with us to the polls in the last election, are not with us," he said. "And we are confident that we can go it alone."

The TDP's Venkateswarlu attributes the rise of the smaller parties to disillusionment with Congress.

"And since Congress Party has failed in different states, the local, regional parties have come out," he said. "Their intention is they know much better about the problems of their own state, their own region. And all these parties they come together in a federal structure at the national level."

That has led many pundits to predict the real contest in India begins only after the votes are counted May 16. Then smaller parties in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere will use the results to extract maximum political gain and possibly decide who governs the world's largest democracy for years to come.

"For political reasons our companions, who walked with us to the polls in the last election, are not with us," said Krishnamurthy. "And we are confident that we can go it alone."

The TDP's Venkateswarlu attributes the rise of the smaller parties to disillusionment with Congress.

"And since Congress Party has failed in different states, the local, regional parties have come out," he said. "Their intention is they know much better about the problems of their own state, their own region. And all these parties they come together in a federal structure at the national level."

That has led many pundits to predict the real contest in India begins only after the votes are counted May 16. Then smaller parties in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere will use the results to extract maximum political gain and possibly decide who governs the world's largest democracy for years to come.


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