India’s general elections enter crucial stage

Indian voters stand in a queue to cast their vote at a polling station in Mumbai on April 29, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 29 April 2019

India’s general elections enter crucial stage

  • The resurgent Congress and a strategic alliance among different regional parties pose a formidable challenge to the BJP in most states
  • Three more phases of polling in the Indian elections remain

NEW DELHI: India’s general elections on Monday entered a crucial stage with the fourth round of polls taking place in areas where the majority of seats are held by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partners.

Of the 71 seats being contested in nine states, 56 are in the hands of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while two are with the opposition Congress party.

In 2014, the BJP dominated in most of the big states in north, east, central and western India with the party bagging 240 out of 282 seats which it had won from eight out of 29 states. With the support of its allies, the NDA has strength of 322 in the house of 543 in the outgoing Parliament.

The resurgent Congress and a strategic alliance among different regional parties pose a formidable challenge to the BJP in most states.

In the biggest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 13 seats are at stake in the fourth phase. The BJP won 73 out of 80 parliamentary seats in the state in 2014. With the coming together of two strong regional parties – Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) – the Hindu right-wing alliance faces a daunting task to retain the majority of its seats. Most opinion polls and political analysts predict the BJP could lose up to 40 seats in the state.

Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – the central and northern Indian states where the BJP won 63 out of 65 seats last time – are seen as tough nuts to crack for the BJP this year with the momentum still with Congress after winning assembly elections there in December last year.

Similarly, in the big western Indian state of Maharashtra where 17 seats went to poll on Monday, the BJP had won 42 out of 48 seats in 2014. With the state witnessing farmers’ protests in recent years, and rural distress, it will be an uphill task for the NDA to repeat its successes of the last elections.

In the eastern Indian state of Bihar — where five seats were on the radar on Monday — the BJP and its partners are facing a stiff challenge from a Congress-led grouping comprising of small regional parties. The BJP won 32 out 40 seats in the last elections there, but in a changed political climate five years down the line, analysts say that the ruling party might lose a significant number of seats.

To compensate for the possible losses in its strongholds, the BJP is making an aggressive push to expand its presence in the eastern Indian states of Orissa and West Bengal, which represent a combined 70 seats in the Lower House of Parliament.

“Political arithmetic has changed in the last five years,” said Bihar-based political analyst, Pawan Pratay.

“Regional parties representing different caste groups have formed alliances with the Congress, and they will play a big role in deciding the outcome of this year’s elections,” Pratay told Arab News.

Pratay added: “In 2014 there was a wave in favor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi but in this election Modi, despite being popular, faces an anti-incumbency factor and a new political alliance. Therefore, repeating the old performance would be a difficult feat for the BJP.”

Lucknow-based senior political analyst, Ram Dutt Tripathi, said: “Though the popularity of Modi is still intact, a strong section of voters is not happy. Besides, the Congress is at a resurgent state after the victory of the party in three crucial states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan a few months ago, so the BJP cannot take the election for granted.

“The Prime Minister tried to change the agenda from development to national security, and attempted to polarize the voters, but its impact is only visible in some urban areas. The BJP knows it is not going to repeat the 2014 performance. It is therefore trying hard to make inroads in new territories in the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa. But they won’t get many seats from there,” Tripathi told Arab News.

“Realizing that they are going to fall short of a majority, the BJP is approaching new regional parties behind the scenes. There is also a feeling that some of the BJP allies might ditch the party if the ruling party falls short of a majority,” the analyst added.

“In the event of there being a hung parliament then the Congress party will play a crucial role,” said Tripathi.

Three more phases of polling in the Indian elections remain. Voting ends on May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23.

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.