TODAY -

Mamata Bannerjee prise out Left Front government in West Bengal
Source: Hueiyen News Service

New Delhi, May 13 2011: India wrapped up its biggest political event of the year Friday as results were announced in four state elections, including an end to the popularly elected communist government in West Bengal after 34 years in power.

In Tamil Nadu, a party linked to the largest corruption scandal in India's history also lost despite a promise to give away millions of food processors, laptops and even houses.

Some 115 million people voted for 6,500 candidates in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, Assam in the northeast and the union territory of Pondicherry, their choices counted by 44,000 people watched over by 18,000 security personnel.

Two candidates contested from jail while hundreds more ran despite facing charges of committing "serious crimes," including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and extortion, free to run until convicted, in a nation where cases can drag on for years.

They're also in good company: 30% of lawmakers in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, face criminal charges.

Money-politics and vote buying didn't abate.

Some $17 million in "unaccounted cash" was seized, much of it in bricks earmarked for particular wards, a fraction of the total handed out, analysts said.

Ambulances were a popular way to ferry slush money around, local media reported, since they're rarely stopped at checkpoints.

Other methods included cash-filled envelopes under banquet plates, direct bank deposits and paying voters' utility and mobile phone bills.

"Very often people with questionable records are considered to have an edge in getting elected over those without muscle," said Kamalkant Jaswal, director of Common Cause, a New Delhi-based watchdog group.

"You also have many political parties with huge donations that never field a candidate in which money laundering is the obvious objective" .

Beyond the billions of rupees spent on campaigns, voter incentives, security and regulating the elections, there was the cost of delayed policy in the states, which have a combined population of 230 million, twice that of Mexico.

State governments all but ground to a halt under rules that forbid lawmakers from passing new laws until after the election.

For bureaucrats, "the past couple of months have been a dream with tea parties, endless luncheons and leisurely strolls with old friends," wrote The Telegraph newspaper from Kolkata.

The biggest upset was in West Bengal, where fiery, mercurial Mamata Banerjee, 56, led her Trinamool party to a decisive victory over the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

"There was so much discontent among people for so many years," said Sanjeeb Mukherjee, a political science professor at Calcutta University.

While West Bengal saw 34,000 people detained, 24 killed and hundreds injured in pitched electoral street battles, the election was hailed as a model of restraint.

West Bengal local elections in 2008 and 2009 saw over 500 political workers killed.

"It has been the most peaceful election ever," said Shahabuddin Qureshi, India's chief election commissioner.

"I congratulate all concerned for giving a good name to the state" .

Banerjee's decisive win her party took three-quarters of the state's 294 seats turns her into a powerhouse on the national stage, although it remains to be seen how this translates.

India badly needs a land acquisition law to build roads and bolster its sagging infrastructure, something she has opposed.

Two farmers and two policemen have died in recent days in riots near the nation's capital over a new highway.

Also unclear is how well the populist gadfly, so successful in opposition, will perform in government.

Famous for wearing flip-flops, getting into street brawls and publicly humiliating her staff, Banerjee's recent two-year tenure as national railway minister left a mixed legacy.

She renamed railway stations to score political points, skipped 60% of Cabinet meetings and all but banned the color red at events because it evoked her hated communist adversaries.

But she's also seen by even her fiercest rivals as incorruptible, a rarity.

In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party was trounced after one of its leading lights, former national Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja, was jailed on charges of defrauding taxpayers of up to $38 billion by under-pricing the cellphone spectrum.

The party's promise to deliver wholesale freebies if reelected failed to work a second time.

After its election in 2006, it gave away 16 million TVs worth $900 million to voters, paid out of state coffers.

In southern Kerala, the same Congress party that heads the national government secured a narrow win against left-leaning opponents, with corruption and free rice the major issues.

Congress also secured a big win in Assam.


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