Indians face complex ballots, violence at polls

May 21, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

BANSI, India -- Chameli, a 51-year-old, 5-foot-tall farm laborer, left her house shortly before noon yesterday and made her way down one of this north Indian village's narrow alleys.

She passed a large pig, up to its snout in a mud puddle, a swarm of barefoot children and several rivulets of raw sewage oozing into the dust, until she arrived at a girls' high school. There, she was handed two pieces of paper and told to enter a curtained booth where she would play her small role in the greatest show of democracy on earth.

Chameli and almost 200 million other Indians had their chance to exercise their franchise yesterday as India kicked off national elections for the second time in 18 months. The remainder of India's electorate -- more than 300 million other voters -- will have the same opportunity Thursday and Sunday.

As befits a largely rural nation of 850 million people, the election is a massive undertaking, involving 600,000 polling sites like the one in Bansi village, about 90 miles west of Delhi in the state of Haryana. The voting apparatus is being carried to every corner of India by everything from elephants to helicopters.

Two-thirds of India's voters are illiterate, so large symbols are used on their ballots to denote the nation's more than 300 parties.

The Congress Party, which has led India for all but four years of the country's independence, uses a picture of a raised palm of a hand. Its main challenger, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party known by its initials BJP, uses a lotus flower.

Inside the voting booth, Chameli faced a bewildering array of choices.

On a white ballot about half the size of this newspaper page were thesymbols of the 26 political parties running candidates for her area's seat in the lower house of India's Parliament, which will elect the nation's next prime minister. On a pink sheet were 15 symbols, representing the candidates running for Haryana's state assembly.

Her task could have been trickier. One district in east Delhi has 105 candidates vying for one Parliament seat. In another district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, 263 assembly candidates are running.

Chameli was perhaps fortunate to be able to get to the polls at all.

The deployment of millions of police and paramilitary forces across India was not enough to head off anticipated violence in some places, particularly in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where illegal gun-makers have been working overtime to arm the gangs that often control elections there.

At the close of the first day of voting, the national death toll stood at about 40 murders, including 14 people who were killed in a fiery riot in the Uttar Pradesh city of Meerut, where Hindu-Muslim tensions are high. A Bihar election official also was killed, as was a 3-year-old boy caught in the cross-fire between opposing political camps in an Uttar Pradesh village.

There also were reports of vote-tampering at hundreds of sites in Bihar alone. In the last two elections in the district around Chameli's village of Bansi, the Haryana chief minister's hired goons took over local polling booths and stuffed the ballot boxes in what Indians call "booth capturing." A dozen or more died in the shootouts that ensued in her village and in a neighboring city called Meham (pronounced "mayhem").

But Bansi and Meham were deadly quiet yesterday.

So Chameli, although she still did not quite understand the difference between the two ballots she was handed, was able to concentrate in peace on casting her votes.

"I voted for the hand," she said after placing her folded ballots into a locked box. "In the past, I have voted for the hand, and my son told me today to vote for the hand. So what could I have done, apart from voting for the hand?"

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