TIME India

Running for Office With a Criminal Case Pending? No Problem, This Is India!

INDIA-ELECTION-VOTE
An Indian voter at the polling booths in a northern state. Of the 3305 candidates for seats in the lower house of parliament, 557 have criminal cases pending against them PRAKASH SINGH—AFP/Getty Images

An election watchdog has found that 17% of candidates in the first five election phases for seats in India’s lower house of Parliament have criminal cases pending. Of those, 328 relate to serious crimes such as rape and murder

India’s democracy is an impressive thing to behold. In preparation for the national polls now underway, election materials have been ferried by air, sea and elephant to give over 800 million people the chance to have their say in the formation of the next government. Turnout in some of the most remote parts of the nation has already been impressive, reaching figures of over 70 and 80% in parts of the northeast that voted last week.

Less impressive are the backgrounds of some of the lawmakers Indians have to choose from. National Election Watch (NEW) and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an election watchdog group in India, have determined that 17% of the candidates running for seats in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, in the first five phases of the nine-phase vote have declared that they have criminal cases against them. The groups, which analyzed the self-sworn affidavits that candidates submit to India’s election body, found that 557 out of 3305 candidates had declared criminal cases against themselves. Of those, 328 faced were cases related to serious crimes, such as rape and murder.

By major party, that breaks down like this: 23% of Congress Party candidates in the first five phases have declared criminal cases against themselves, 34% of Bharatiya Janata Party candidates, and 16% of Aam Aadmi Party candidates. The states and territories with the highest percentage of candidates with criminal cases are the archipelago of Lakshadweep off India’s southwest coast at 50%, Goa at 32% and Kerala at 74%.

Though candidates’ records in the last four phases have yet to be examined, the numbers seem to be on track for an improvement over the last Lok Sabha elected in 2009, in which some 30% of parliamentarians had declared criminal cases against them. But even with corruption and cleaner governance being focal points this election season, it’s unclear how much attention voters will give their candidates’ records in 2014. “I don’t think its’s an election issue,” says ADR head Anil Verma. “We keep making noises and try to educate the voter of these issues.”

Last month, India’s Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to try lawmakers facing criminal charges within a year of the case being filed. The order is part of a ongoing effort to clean up the ranks of India’s halls of power; in July, the apex court ruled that lawmakers convicted of certain crimes would be immediately disqualified from office. If the judiciary upholds this latest order, Verma says, it could have a big impact on the next house. But he’s not optimistic for a major house cleaning to take place any time soon. “I don’t see it happening,” Verma says. “Let’s see how the judicial system goes.”

 

TIME India

India’s LGBT Community: Don’t Vote BJP

Activists protest against Supreme Court's judgment that upheld section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality Raj k Raj—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

While the incumbent Congress Party, fledgling Aam Aadmi Party and even the Communist Party of India have all come out in favor of gay rights, the Bharatiya Janata Party has not made its position clear, enraging the LGBT community of the world's largest democracy

India’s LGBT community is calling on members to come together during national elections to try to defeat the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). LGBT activists say the Hindu nationalist party, which is expected to give a strong performance in the polls, has failed to take a clear position on LGBT rights, while some of its members have made statements openly denouncing homosexuality. “In the absence of any clarification from the party, we will assume that they are not supporting gay rights,” says Shaleen Rakesh, a gay rights activist and director of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Some people’s minds may already be made up. In a recent survey of LGBT Indians and their supporters conducted by Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based organization, most said they planned to vote for Congress (45.17%), followed by AAP (41.07%). Only 13.76% of respondents said they planned to vote for the BJP.

Gay rights in India came into the national spotlight in December, when the Supreme Court upheld Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalizes gay sex. The colonial law had been ruled unconstitutional by the New Delhi High Court in 2009 in a decision that was celebrated by human rights groups worldwide. But last year the apex court overturned the ruling, reinstating the law and effectively passing the buck to Parliament to decide on its constitutionality.

The decision came as a shock to many in India, and prompted several politicians to take a firm stand on the issue. Congress president Sonia Gandhi said in a statement: “I hope that Parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgment.” The government submitted a review petition to the court to reconsider the ruling, which was later dismissed.

The BJP, meanwhile, came out in favor of the court’s decision, with a spokesman saying that “we can’t bring western culture into our society and culture,” according to local reports.

BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says the party’s official stance has been supportive of the Supreme Court ruling, as it put the onus on parliament to debate the law. “The BJP position has been that the legislators were the ones who would work on this,” she says. “If there is a law to be made, we’ll participate.” As to why LGBT rights were not included in the party manifesto, Sitharaman says the issue needs further debate: “there has to be a lot of deliberation before a decision is taken.”

For activists, the judgment did have one silver lining: timing. Because it came shortly before election campaigns kicked off, several political parties have taken clearer positions on gay rights then, perhaps, they otherwise might have. Congress, which has led the government since 2004 and faces a tough fight these elections, has come out in support of gay rights, as has the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India (CPM). “The BJP is actually the odd one out,” Rakesh says. Shaina NC, a BJP leader, told the Times of India: “We have not discussed the issue as a party. When we do so after elections, I believe a younger generation of BJP workers will actively debate the merits of the issue.”

In the meantime, LGBT activists are banding together to choose candidates from secular parties that stand in opposition to the BJP. With the opposition party favored to form a next government, the action may be a fruitless one, but it’s part of a longer battle. If the BJP wins, it’s not over for gay rights in India, says Rakesh. “The community is not going to rush back into the closet because they are afraid. The opposition will continue.”

Update: April 11, 12:55 ET

TIME South Asia

India’s Capital Goes to the Polls

Indian polling officials check the details of voters at a polling station in New Delhi on April 10, 2014. Raveendran—AFP/Getty Images

The race in New Delhi s seen as a triangular contest between the ruling Congress Party, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party

It’s late morning on election day, and the twisted lanes of Balli Maran, normally packed, are empty. Fresh pots of simmering chai send steam into the dusty shafts sunlight that bisect the quiet streets. Fatima Begum, an 80-year-old woman from the neighborhood, has just cast her vote. She voted for Kapil Sibal, the Congress parliamentarian and minister defending his seat here. “I started voting for Congress, and I’ll die voting for Congress,” she says.

As New Delhi goes to the polls today, over 12.7 million voters like Fatima Begum had the chance to put their allegiance, their dissatisfaction and their yearning for change on the ballot. It’s a massive exercise that takes place from morning until evening at thousands of polling booths around the capital. At stake are seven parliamentary seats in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. It’s not a huge number in the 543-seat body — the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has 85 seats — but the race in the capital will be closely watched, as it is seen as a triangular contest between the ruling Congress Party, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Turnout in the last national elections in 2009 was relatively low, but after 66% of Delhi-ites showed up to vote for the local legislature in December, it is expected to be higher this round as the three big parties go in for a rematch.

The Delhi vote is seen as a major test for AAP in particular, whose debut in December’s elections put their leader Arvind Kejriwal in the chief minister’s seat for a short stint. Kejriwal stepped down after failing to pass his party’s signature anti-corruption bill, and the party took its campaign to the national stage. Whether the capital’s voters will again support AAP, or have drifted away after its short-lived governance, could signal what kind of lasting power and influence the new party has been able to muster. Rahul Popli, a 27-year-old in the southern neighborhood of Malviya Nagar, said he might have considered voting for AAP, but after Kejriwal stepped down in New Delhi, he decided against it. “When they were given the chance, they just ran away,” Popli says. Instead, he’s banking on the BJP and Modi, the long-time chief minister of Gujarat, to get India’s economy in particular back on track. “Modi’s done good work in Gujarat, so we’re rooting for him,” says Popli.

Four days into the Indian election cycle, the race is also on between the main opposition BJP and the incumbent Congress Party, which has been leading the nation’s ruling coalition since 2004. Congress won all of Delhi’s seven seats in 2009, but such a strong performance is not expected this time around. The party’s ouster from the state government in December was seen as a strong indication of a mutinous mood in the city and beyond. The BJP is hoping that voters’ yearn for something new — and their disenchantment with AAP — will translate into a big win for them.

In Balli Maran, it is basic issues, like whether residents feel they are getting clean water and enough electricity, that will help determine whether Congress holds the local seat. But the neighborhood also has a large Muslim population. That fact is not lost on main contenders Kapil Sibal of Congress, AAP’s journalist-turned politician Ashutosh and the BJP’s Harsh Vardhan. How Muslim voters perceive the BJP and Modi in particular, who was chief minister when anti-Muslim riots took place in Gujarat in 2002, is a big question in the national vote.

Mohammed Yasin, a 72-year-old Muslim resident who wears a long white beard and a crumpled skull cap, says he, too, will always vote for Congress. “I voted for BJP once and gave them the opportunity to run the country,” Yasin says. When the Gujarat riots unfolded under a BJP-led government, he changed his mind and went back to Congress. When asked about the scandals that have faced the Congress government in recent years, he is more forgiving. “Who isn’t corrupt?” he asks. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

TIME South Asia

The World’s Largest Democracy Is Heading to the Polling Booth

India Elections
An Indian election officer applies an indelible ink mark on the finger of a woman during the first phase of elections in Dibrugarh, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on April 7, 2014 Altaf Qadri—AP

A five-week election process involving more than 814 million eligible voters has begun as opinion polls suggesting the incumbent Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi may be ousted by the Hindu-nationalist BJP of controversial politician Narendra Modi

National elections kicked off in India, the world’s largest democracy, on Monday, with voters in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura heading to the polls. The closely watched vote, in which the incumbent Congress Party is going head to head with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for control over India’s lower house of Parliament, takes place over the next five weeks in nine phases across the nation.

Over 814 million people are eligible to vote, with results due mid-May. In the media, the race has shaped up to be a showdown between Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and BJP prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Gandhi, part of India’s most powerful political dynasty, has promised voters that Congress will continue to focus on inclusive growth and expand the host of welfare programs it has instated since coming to power in 2004. Modi, the self-made chief minister of Gujarat with close ties to India’s Hindu-nationalist movement, says he will put India back on the fast-growth path and rid New Delhi of the corruption that has dogged the last two Congress-led coalitions.

But several other smaller parties are likely to play a crucial role in how India’s next government is formed. If neither Congress nor the BJP wins a clear majority of seats in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house, others will be pivotal in helping form the next coalition — and naming the next PM. If both Congress and the BJP perform very poorly, a “third front” coalition made up of the smaller parties could also come to power.

Perhaps the biggest challenger among them is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the upstart party led by former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal, which brought its anticorruption fight to the national stage after an impressive political debut in New Delhi local elections in December. Kejriwal is running against Modi for the parliamentary seat in Varanasi, the ancient city holy to Hindus in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

As of today, a variety of outcomes are still on the table, though polls in the run-up to the vote favored a strong BJP showing. Multiple surveys indicate that after a decade, voters are weary of a Congress-led government and think a change of regime would prove more effective in solving major problems seen as holding India back, like poverty and corruption.

Because of that anti-incumbency mood — and the energetic and expensive campaigns run by the parties — voter turnout is expected to be high. In the last national vote in 2009, turnout was above 58%.

In 2009 in Assam, where the first phase of voting started Monday, turnout was nearly 70%. Despite the state’s high poverty rates and physical isolation from the rest of India, voters there once again seem determined not to squander their opportunity to participate in the world’s largest democratic exercise. Fifty-one candidates from Congress, BJP and several other parties are vying for the state’s five seats in Lok Sabha. (Tripura, a small state in the northeast, also goes to the polls today.) The BJP is looking to make gains in the region, which is a Congress stronghold.

“Of course I’ll vote,” said Parbati, a plantation worker on a tea estate in Assam. “I know the politicians don’t keep their promise. But it is my right to vote, and I must do it as an Indian citizen.” Others echoed her sense of duty. In a refugee camp outside the city of Tezpur, a young resident and first-time voter acknowledged that “nothing will change” in a new government. But, he adds, “I must vote. It is my right.”

— With reporting by Arijit Sen

TIME Afghanistan

Afghanistan Defies Taliban Threats To Vote in Historic Polls

Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif
Afghan women wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif April 5, 2014. Zohra Bensemraz—Reuters

Despite warnings of violence by the Taliban, Afghans turned out in large numbers to vote in Saturday's presidential election. Afghan forces were dispatched in a massive operation across the nation to protect voters

Updated 4:00 p.m. ET

Seven million Afghans braved security threats and inclement weather on Saturday to vote for their next president. Despite persistent intimidation and attacks by the Taliban in the weeks ahead of the April 5 polls, voter turnout was high in what many hope will be the war-torn nation’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power since 2001.

President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001 and is constitutionally barred from running again, cast his vote for his successor in the morning. Eight candidates are vying to take his place; the three frontrunners are Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and Zalmai Rassoul. In such a wide field, the likelihood that one candidate will get the votes needed to win outright is slim. A runoff vote between the top candidates is widely expected, meaning that Afghanistan may not get its next government in place until the summer.

Officials and citizens’ central concerns as the presidential and provincial elections got underway were security and fraud. The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the vote, and ran a campaign of high-profile attacks in Kabul and other parts of the country in recent weeks. The day before voting started, two female foreign journalists traveling with election workers were attacked by an Afghan police officer in eastern Khost province. Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer working for the Associated Press, was shot and killed.

Afghan forces were dispatched in a massive operation across the nation to protect voters. Much of Kabul was reportedly blocked off to traffic, and in less stable parts of the country, the election commission closed hundreds of polling centers before the vote, in no small part to prevent ballot stuffing in places where voters and observers would be largely absent. After the 2009 presidential election, some 1.5 million votes were disqualified, according to the election commission. Karzai remained in power, but such widespread fraud this time around could lead to a protracted power struggle in a larger field of candidates.

Over the course of the day, a sense of euphoria built on social media as photos poured in of long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots and proudly showing off their ink-stained fingers after their turn. A total of seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or 58 percent showed up to vote, despite the Taliban’s threats, Al Jazeera reports. There were scattered bombings and attacks throughout the country and several deaths were reported, but the violence was less intense than expected.

“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the millions of Afghans who enthusiastically participated in today’s historic elections,” said President Barack Obama in a statement. “These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future.”

There were reports Saturday that some polling centers had run out of ballots — a better problem to have than widespread violence, but also one that underscores the work still ahead in this historic transition for Afghanistan. Today’s enthusiastic and inspiring vote was a good start.

TIME India

Retirement of U.S. Ambassador to India Sparks Speculation

Ambassador Nancy Powell attends an event in New Delhi, March 27, 2014.
Ambassador Nancy Powell attends an event in New Delhi, March 27, 2014. Saurabh Das—AP

The step-down of U.S. ambassador to India Nancy Powell just weeks before the country's national elections raises questions over the state of India-U.S. relations following an embarrassing diplomatic spat that flared late last year

U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell announced on March 31 she was stepping down from her post, causing speculation in India whether Washington pulled her back after a heated dispute between the two nations over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December.

A March 31 statement released by the Embassy said Powell “has submitted her resignation to President Obama and, as planned for some time, will retire to her home in Delaware before the end of May.” She is retiring after 37 years, having previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Nepal, Uganda and Ghana and in other overseas posts.

In a State Department briefing the same day, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf flatly denied there was any connection to Powell’s decision and the riff over the December 2013 arrest of Devyani Khobragade on charges of related to alleged visa fraud and wages paid to her staff. India has claimed she had diplomatic immunity at the time of the arrest and that the wage dispute was a matter to be settled in Indian courts.

“It is in no way related to any tension, any recent situations,” Harf said. “There’s no big behind-the-scenes story here… All the rumors and speculation are, quite frankly, totally false.”

But for a career diplomat to announce retirement in a nation that is about to go to the polls in a matter of days naturally raises some questions. “US ambassador Nancy Powell’s resignation is the first real indication that Washington has woken up and is starting to smell the chai,” Seema Sirohi writes in Firstpost.com.

US ambassador Nancy Powell’s resignation is the first real indication that Washington has woken up and is starting to smell the “chai.”Read more at: http://www.firstpost.com/blogs/why-nancy-powells-exit-can-help-india-us-rebuild-relations-1460889.html?utm_source=ref_article

If a new government does come to power in New Delhi — as it well might — the administration of President Barack Obama may have wanted to start afresh. In February, Powell met Narendra Modi, the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate widely seen as being in the lead. A Modi aide told Reuters that the meeting had been delayed because of the Khobragade incident. Before the meeting, U.S. officials had not interacted with Modi in any official capacity for years. In 2005, he was denied a visa to the U.S. over his alleged role in 2002 communal riots that erupted in the state of Gujarat where he is chief minister. Modi has always denied any wrongdoing.

In Monday’s briefing, Harf sought to reaffirm the U.S.-India relationship was on track: “We have a very close – very, very close – relationship with India on a whole host of issues,” she told reporters. “That has not changed… We will work with whoever the people of India decide should lead their country.”

TIME Afghanistan

Nine Dead in a Hotel Bloodbath: Welcome to Campaign Season in Kabul

An Afghan security personnel keeps watch near the Serena hotel, during an attack in Kabul
An Afghan soldier keeps watch near the Serena hotel, during an attack in Kabul, March 20, 2014. Taliban gunmen claimed nine lives. Ahmad Masood—Reuters

Four gunmen with pistols in their boots passed through security undetected at the Serena hotel in Afghanistan's capital to kill nine its worst attack in years, the latest in a string of high-profile targets that have cast a grim shadow over the upcoming elections

Four gunmen passed through heavy security at a luxury hotel in central Kabul on Thursday evening, opening fire on guests and staff and killing nine civilians, including four foreigners, according to officials in Kabul on Friday morning. At least four others were also injured in the attack.

Police say the four young men had hidden pistols in their boots and passed through security at the Serena hotel undetected. The government says they hid out in the hotel for hours before about 9 p.m., when guests reported hearing several gunshots. All four gunmen were killed.

The Serena is popular with foreigners, diplomats and affluent Afghans and, despite heavy security, has been the target of attacks before.

The Taliban was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, which comes just weeks before Afghans are due to go to the polls on Apr. 5 to elect a new president. On Mar. 10, the militant group vowed to use “all force” to disrupt the elections, claiming that whoever succeeded President Hamid Karzai would be a proxy for the United States. “It is the religious obligation of every Afghan to fulfill their duty by foiling the latest plot of the invaders that is [disguised] in the garb of elections,” the statement said.

(MORE: AFP Reporter Killed in Serena Hotel attack)

According to AFP, earlier in the day the Taliban attacked a police station in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 18. In a three-hour siege of the station in the middle of the city, ten police officers and one civilian were killed, along with the seven suicide attackers.

A string of recent attacks on high-profile targets, including security installations and foreigners, has cast a shadow over what will be the country’s first democratic transfer of power since 2001. In January, Taliban fighters stormed a popular Lebanese restaurant in a diplomatic enclave in Kabul, killing 21, mostly foreigners. Earlier this month, Swedish journalist Nils Horner was murdered in the same area. (A Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for that attack.)

Election-related violence has also been on the upswing in recent weeks. As the presidential candidates hold rallies around the nation, several campaigners have been killed and injured. On Mar. 12, four members of the Independent Election Commission were kidnapped in eastern Nangarhar province next door to Pakistan. The last presidential elections in 2009 were marred by fraud, violence and voter intimidation.

The growing state of insecurity ahead of this vote will once again keep many voters in unstable parts of the country away from the polls. It also opens up the doors for more foul play, which will ultimately weaken the mandate of whatever government comes to power, says Wahid Mozhda, an analyst and former foreign ministry official in the Taliban government. “If no monitors can go watch, people can stuff boxes.” He says in 2009, political forces – not just the Taliban – were involved in the intimidation of civilians to disrupt the vote, and expects worse this time around.

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