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India kicks off state polls in first big test for Congress

India kicks off state polls in first big test for Congress
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First Published: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 05 16 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 05 16 PM IST
Guwahati: Tens of thousands of Indians in the insurgency-racked state of Assam cast votes on Monday for a state assembly, with the ruling Congress party seen as the early favourite in its first big test since it became embroiled in several corruption scandals.
Five states, from which come just over a fifth of members of the 545-member lower house of the national parliament, are holding elections for state assemblies that run until mid-May, and a good showing by Congress will help it regain lost political authority and relieve some pressure from the opposition.
The election in the northeastern state of Assam, held in the shadow of a threat of attacks by rebels fighting New Delhi’s rule, pits the state’s Congress government against a local party allied to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition has been hit by a series of corruption scandals and by high food prices, which have damaged its credibility and worried investors in Asia’s third-largest economy.
The scandals include accusations of massive corruption and rule-breaking during the granting of lucrative mobile phone licences and radio spectrum in 2007-08, which lost the exchequer $39 billion in revenue.
The Congress is favoured to win the election in Assam, taking advantage of a fractured opposition, but the scandals will weigh. Analysts predict a slimmer majority for the party.
“This time it will not be smooth sailing for the Congress,” said Haider Hussain, a political analyst based in Guwahati, Assam’s main city.
Officials estimated that about 55-60% of the 8.5 million registered voters cast their ballots, a proportion in line with past turnouts.
More than 45,000 members of the security forces guarded 11,000 polling booths across 62 of the 126 constituencies in the tea-and-oil rich state. The rest of the state will vote on 11 April.
No poll-related violence was reported but rebels ambushed security forces in forested Kokrajhar district, 250 km (155 miles) west of Guwahati. Two soldiers were killed and three were wounded, officials said.
Assam faces decades-old separatist violence. Some rebels are in peace talks with the government, but a faction opposes this and has ambushed security forces and attacked Congress leaders in the run-up to the elections.
Other states that have elections are the communist ruled states of West Bengal and Kerala, where Congress coalitions are expected to win on an anti-incumbency wave. Congress is also expected to retain the tiny southern territory of Pondicherry.
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, corruption charges will weigh on the Congress coalition’s bid to retain power despite populist measures such as free television sets and cheap grains for the poor.
A. Raja, the former telecoms minister at the centre of the telecoms case, is a member of Congress’ regional ally DMK, which has also been implicated in the scandal.
The vote in West Bengal begins on 18 April and will be held in stages through to 10 May. Elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry will be on 13 April.
The results of all five elections are due 13 May.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 05 16 PM IST
More Topics: Assembly polls 2011 | Assam | Congress | BJP | A Raja |