Debating India

ELECTIONS 2004

BJP losing ground, says exit poll

Monday 26 April 2004

New Delhi, April 26: The BJP-led coalition is in front of the main Congress opposition after three rounds of voting but is losing ground from its 1999 result, a television exit poll said on Monday.

In scorching heat, voters trickled into polling booths in 136 constituencies for the third round of the five-stage poll, from the financial hub of Bombay to the bellwether northern state of Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

New television exit polls for the first three rounds show the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies winning on a platform of peace and prosperity, but possibly falling short of a majority in the face of strong gains by the opposition Congress party.

One person was killed in a clash between rival party workers in southern Andhra Pradesh and a policeman was injured when rebels opened fire in northeastern Manipur state, where armoured cars patrolled and many booths were protected by sandbags.

A woman voter was injured in a grenade blast in Kashmir, but there were no reports of major violence elsewhere.

"I have voted for stability," housewife Neena Phadnis, 60, said after voting for the BJP in Bombay, where financial markets and shops were closed for the day. "I want a government that will bring down the prices of essential commodities."

CONGRESS FIGHTS BACK

Two more rounds of voting are yet to come before counting and results on May 13.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which also voted on Monday, account for 120 of the federal Parliament’s 545 seats and are seen as critical to victory.

Polls show Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, and with high-profile campaigning by her daughter, Priyanka, and son, Rahul, has been gaining steadily through the campaign.

Three exit polls after voting ended at 1700 hrs, IST gave the ruling coalition 144-160 of the 276 seats in which votes have been cast so far, compared with 172 in 1999, and Congress 91-103, compared with 69.

Based on this, the polls forecast 262-273 seats for BJP and its current coalition partners — 273 is only just a majority in the Parliament.

"The shock effect of going to elections early and catching the Congress offguard has begun to wear off and the people seem to be airing their discontent," analyst and commentator Prem Shankar Jha told Reuters.

"A lot of people who were bemused, confused or apathetic have been galvanised by the Congress on issues such as unemployment and the growing disparities between the rich and the poor. They have come out and voted."

While he still expected the BJP to form a coalition government, he said its position would be weakened.

As in last week’s opening two rounds, early turnout was low, with voters discouraged by temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius in some areas.

At many booths, voters sheltered under trees or in the shade of buildings as they waited, some for five hours or more, to cast their ballots. In remote areas, some travelled for hours in bullock carts to reach the nearest polling station.

The election has been a largely subdued, colourless affair after the introduction of tough limits on campaigning.

Security was tight in Kashmir, where militants fighting Indian rule called a boycott. The streets of the Himalayan region’s main city, Srinagar, were deserted and shops and businesses closed.

"Nobody is going to come to vote — nobody wants to go into the clutches of death," said Aziz Iron, a polling official at a heavily protected booth with soldiers in bullet-proof vests and armed with machine guns standing behind sandbags.

Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi revitalised a listless Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

Although the BJP won power in 1999, this election is being fought on bread and butter issues, such as jobs, prosperity, water and electricity.

"I am totally devoted to the Congress... I will always vote for the Gandhi family," said Gaya Prasad Shukla, a 79-year-old retired policeman in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency.

P.S.

REUTERS

In The Indian Express, Monday, April 26, 2004.

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