FEBRUARY 8, 2012
Indian State Vote Seen as Gauge of Anticorruption Push
By HARSH JOSHI
[IUTTAR_1] Rajnish Tewari, Barabanki for The Wall Street Journal
The crowd at a Bahujan Samaj Party rally listens to party leader
Kumari Mayawati earlier this week.
MOHIUDDIN PUR, India—Starting Wednesday, India's most populous state
and political bellwether will go to the polls in a monthlong process
to elect a new state assembly.
The state of Uttar Pradesh, which borders New Delhi in the country's
north, has become a battleground for four major political parties. It
also has become a testing ground for whether new rules put in place by
the country's Election Commission, which oversees polls nationally,
can make a dent in a process that historically has been notoriously
In 2010, the commission added new rules to its code of conduct. It
asked candidates to open separate bank accounts for election expenses
and restricted campaigning with posters and banners in public areas.
It also said candidates can campaign with only 10 vehicles and can use
only three on voting day.
Congress party President Sonia Gandhi greets supporters during an
election campaign rally in Gonda, India, last week.
Already, there are some visible signs of change. Campaign posters and
banners—a staple of past elections—are largely absent. The practice of
using loudspeakers and mobile vans for publicity has been banished. In
January, the commission ordered that several statues of elephants—the
party symbol of the ruling Bahujan Samajwadi Party—and statues of the
party's leader, Kumari Mayawati, which abound in the state capital,
Lucknow, be covered. It termed them part of the BSP's public campaign.
The massive stone statues are now draped in tarpaulins.
Election authorities also have, in effect, taken over the state's
bureaucratic machinery for the supervision of voting, which will
happen in seven phases across the state before results are declared
Even Election Commission officials acknowledge that their efforts to
clean up Uttar Pradesh's election process can go only so far, given
that political parties for years have been flouting the rules in order
to persuade voters to back them.
"Our efforts have yielded results," says Umesh Sinha, chief electoral
officer for the state. "But a lot more needs to be done to control
Uttar Pradesh is the biggest prize of five states that go to the polls
early this year to elect state assemblies. It has a state assembly
with 403 constituencies and also holds 15% of the 552 seats in the
national Parliament, the highest of any state.
Uttar Pradesh, with an estimated population of 200 million, used to be
a stronghold of the Congress party, which rules the nation in a
coalition government. But in 2007, Ms. Mayawati of the Bahujan
Samajwadi Party, which draws much of its support from Dalits—those at
the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy—became chief minister, the
state's highest electoral office.
Her party holds 219 seats in the state legislature, compared with 22
for Congress. New Delhi's main opposition, the Bharitya Janata Party,
also is vying for seats in the state.
A visit to three of the state's 75 electoral districts shows that free
spending and apparent violations of the Election Commission's new
rules can be spotted.
By law, a candidate can't spend more than $31,000 on publicity. But
"candidates are spending anywhere between $400,000 to $2 million,"
said a state government official in the Income Tax department in
Faizabad district, 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Lucknow.
In Rudauli, one constituency in Faizabad, the entourage of Shamshad
Ahmed, the BSP candidate, had at least 15 vehicles, more than the 10
permitted for campaigning under election guidelines. A BSP official in
Mr. Ahmed's camp says: "We spend around $2,000 just on fuel every day"
just in the district. A party spokesman couldn't be reached to
There is a rush to get new cars registered across the state, as well
as to register old vehicles that politicians and candidates delayed
listing to avoid registration costs, says Ravinder Singh, an official
at the Regional Transport Office in Raebareli, an electoral district
south of Lucknow, the state capital. Those found flouting the
commission's rules may have a police complaint lodged against them by
the district magistrate.
Polling officers in Ayodhya, India, check voting machines on Tuesday.
U.P. Elections Fact Sheet
The Samajwadi Party
The Bahujan Samaj Party
Bharatiya Janata Party
The Congress Party
Election Commission enforcement officials have seized 200,000 liters
of liquor brought in illegally from neighboring states, according to
data from the office of the state's chief electoral officer. The
commission categorizes distribution of alcohol as bribery. It has also
nabbed $6.3 million in so-called black money from several cars and
homes this year that allegedly may be related to campaigning.
Black money is either money on which no income tax has been paid or
money derived from illegal means.
Of 337 candidates standing for election in Uttar Pradesh, 49% of them
had never filed an income-tax return, according to Election Watch, a
campaign run by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a
The Election Commission's efforts "have made some difference but there
are incidents of money being distributed" to voters to buy votes, says
I.C. Dwivedi, state coordinator for the organization.
Some spending targeted at specific voters isn't illegal but involves
big bucks. Winning the votes of Muslims, who form 18% of the state's
voting population, is crucial for all political parties. The
Congress-led government in New Delhi recently approved a $1.2 billion
relief package for weavers in Uttar Pradesh, including debt write-offs
and collateral-free loans. Most of these workers are Muslims.
"Any announcement made on the eve of elections has to be seen as vote
garnering," says Pralay Kanungo, a professor at the Center for
Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
A Congress spokesman couldn't be reached to comment.
Some voters grumble that the new rules have deprived them of benefits
they looked forward to in the past. Jumman Ali, a carpenter in
Mohiuddin Pur village in Faizabad district, said that, with just a
week to go before voting, candidates have disappointed him so far.
"They should give something, at least," he said. "All they do is nod
when we tell our problems and they promise to get it done if we vote
Write to Harsh Joshi at email@example.com
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