Violence flares in India as election race heats up
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Violence flares in India as election race heats up

On Wednesday this week, almost two hours after India’s official election body announced the details of a nine-phase mammoth general election to elect 543 lawmakers to begin on April 7, nouveau-politician Arvind Kejriwal was stopped by the Gujarat police as he staged a road show. The leader of India’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) embarked earlier in the morning on a campaign trail in what can be euphemistically called the lion’s den: the political bastion of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJ{) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

What followed is immaterial. What matters is the perception that Modi is showing signs of nerves as Kejriwal’s road show was obstructed by an administration under his charge. Two hours later still, violence erupted in New Delhi when AAP volunteers clashed with BJP workers after the former protested at the BJP office to demonstrate against Kejriwal’s detention. Reports followed of sporadic violence from other cities of north India.

BJP leaders are clearly on the back foot. One of them claimed that the Congress party was using AAP to stop Narendra Modi. The BJP, past masters for over a quarter of a century in playing on the sentiment of victimhood, rediscovered the virtue of this ploy. However, this time the ‘victim’ is Modi, a leader who until the other day was being projected as an Indian-style Rambo.

This episode involving two men who are obvious contenders for the top job indicates that the forthcoming election is unlikely to be a tepid affair; it could turn violent, both verbally and physically. Normally, tensions don’t overflow until polling day, but there are indications that police and security forces have tough months ahead. However, with large parts of India, including the national capital, being under political control of the Congress party, there is a possibility that the situation may be allowed deteriorate. This in any case appears to be the main hope for the Congress to perform creditably.

(MORE: India readies for the biggest election on earth)

It needs to be reiterated that the parliamentary election still remains multi-polar with the top two or three parties unlikely to win many more than 300 odd seats between them. This means that a huge block of almost 250 seats will be bagged by regional parties or smaller national parties like the communists. The distribution of seats among the top three parties that is uncertain and making any projections have become extremely difficult at this stage.

The AAP is of recent vintage and grew out of the anti-graft movement of 2011. The formation of the party was mired in controversy because the main leader of the movement, Anna Hazare, refused to join it. But the new party fired the imagination of voters in state elections in New Delhi in December last and formed the local government. It was a political ploy because AAP did not have a majority and it opted to quit the government after being disallowed form passing the anti-graft laws which the central government argued was beyond the powers of the local government.

AAP and the anti-corruption movement have been at times seen as India’s Tahrir Square. But its leaders tried blending street politics with intervention in parliamentary elections. It has attempted what has not been done for more than two decades: contest elections on a shoe-string budget, raise money from small donations and not through corporate donations. In the process, it has tried to make those who have been denied the benefits of India’s economic liberalization programme stakeholders in the electoral process.

In this squabble involving BJP and AAP, the Congress would like to see for itself a chance to stage a comeback. In the electoral race, the party which has led the ruling coalition for a decade is having a tough time catching up with the BJP which secured an early lead with Modi at the helm. But with the entry of AAP and Kejriwal’s repeated challenges to Modi that he will contest directly against him, the BJP juggernaut is definitely at a crossroads. So far, the BJP campaign ignored the AAP. After violent clashes between workers of the two parties, Modi and his party leaders can no longer ignore the threat. The biggest threat to BJP comes from AAP in urban majority seats that account for almost 20 percent of the total constituencies. Any seat that the AAP wins from this category will essentially mean a direct decrease in the BJP tally. AAP may eventually decide if Modi becomes Prime Minister or not.

What appeared to be a fairly straight story as projected by opinion polls and surveys so far has suddenly become more complex. It is still anyone’s game.