Mumbai’s Election Turnout: Better, But Not Great

Voting For Sixth Phase Of Lok Sabha Polls
A first time voter showing ink stained fingers after casting his vote in the Lok Sabha polls on April 24, 2014 in Mumbai, India. Hindustan Times—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Early estimates say 52% of voters showed up at polling booths in India's commercial capital yesterday. That's an improvement over 2009 figures, but still low compared to other parts of the country

Rachna Kedia knocks on her neighbor’s front door in an apartment building in Malabar Hill, a posh enclave in south Mumbai. A man opens and raises his eyebrows in mock alarm. “I’m going! I’m going!” he says. “What about the rest of the family?” Kedia asks. One by one, family members appear to assure the representative of Volunteer for a Better India (VBI) — an NGO promoting volunteerism — that they will be voting on April 24. “Obviously,” says another woman downstairs. “It’s our right, and we’re going to do it.”

As it turned out, only a slim majority of residents of India’s frenetic and charismatic financial capital broke out of their normally apathetic shell on Thursday and turned up to vote on a sweltering day. Early estimates of voter turnout across the city was about 52%, according to local reports.

That’s over 11% higher than the last national elections in 2009 but it still means that almost half of the voters in this city of 12 million shunned the polling booths. In recent months, volunteers like Kedia have been fanning out around town to try and turn Mumbai’s voting numbers around. “A lot of awareness has happened, but a lot still needs to happen,” she says. In the runup to the vote, organizations like VBI (an offshoot of the Art of Living Foundation), India First, a local grassroots group, and the IndiaVoting Coalition, focused on getting out the vote of corporate workers nationally. They also joined up with political parties to help register voters and encouraged them to show up at the polls.

Companies like Reliance and ICICI bank participated in drives to get their employees to the polls, too. Hitesh Barot, who heads the IndiaVoting Coalition, says that with parties focused on courting votes in traditional vote banks like slums, legions of corporate employees in cities like Mumbai were left out of the registration drive. “White-collar Indians have not been viewed as a voting block and are left to fend for themselves.”

Even if Mumbai’s turnout was low compared to other parts of the country, the intense national interest in this election helped beat 2009’s anemic numbers. The closely watched showdown between the incumbent Congress Party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in Mumbai is partnered with the powerful local party Shiv Sena, has captivated people around the country.

It’s too soon to say what that means for the the candidates duking it out for the city’s six seats in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. (Results are expected on May 16.) In 2009, riding the wave of high economic growth at the time, the incumbent Congress Party swept the polls. This year, the verdict is less certain. Muslims, who comprise some 20% of eligible voters according to the State Minorities Commission, may be galvanized to defeat the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat during a 2002 wave of religious riots in which over 1000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

In Dharavi, a slum in south Mumbai, Ansar Khan, a Muslim tailor, says that recent anti-Muslim comments from the BJP’s associates have made him freshly apprehensive about a BJP-led government in New Delhi. “The Muslim community does not vote in a block, but when you hear these speeches, what am I supposed to think?” asks Khan, 52, referring to alleged comments by Hindu nationalist leader Pravin Togadia on driving Muslims out of Hindu neighborhoods. “Aren’t we supposed to be worried?”

BJP-Shiv Sena supporters meanwhile say a bigger turnout in Mumbai is a clear demonstration of people’s weariness of Congress, which has been in power nationally since 2004. In Banganga, a narrow, winding neighborhood on Malabar Hill, Mihika Ronish and her brother have just voted for the first time because, she says, they are fed up. “I think Congress has literally made India hit rock bottom,” Ronish, 27, said on voting day. She cast her vote with the BJP-Sena alliance, as has her brother, mother and father, who all came to vote together. “I know so many people who are going and voting for the first time today,” she says.

Yesterday’s vote was not without incident. Local media reported that thousands of voters were left off the voter lists at polling stations, unable to vote. In the last four years, election officials’ efforts to clean up the rosters have led to the deletion of hundreds of thousands of voters who were identified as dead, relocated, or otherwise wrongly listed in their polling district. Despite officials ongoing efforts to inform voters about the deletions by radio and newspaper, many were caught off guard. “Nobody bothered to see whether their name was deleted,” says Maya Patole, an election official in south Mumbai. “Now suddenly they’re saying, ‘My name is not there.’”

But millions more have simply slipped through the cracks. Yesterday’s turnout was still low compared to other parts of the country, where turnout has been over 70%. On a busy side street in east Bandra, where hundreds of day laborers gather and wait to get picked up for work, Rupesh Srivas said he was registered, but wouldn’t vote. “There is no sense in it,” says the 24-year-old mason. “If someone was thinking about our future, it would make sense for me to vote. But nobody is thinking about us, so what’s the point?”


Iran Cuts Portion of Gasoline Subsidies

(TEHRAN, Iran) — Iran has cut a portion of its gasoline subsidies, nearly doubling some prices at the pump as part of a second round of cuts delayed since 2012.

Friday’s move will test public support for moderate President Hassan Rouhani in a nation battered by inflation and economic sanctions imposed over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

Subsidies have kept the cost of gasoline artificially low for consumers in OPEC-member Iran. The slash aims to release government money for production and infrastructural projects.

Under the new pricing scheme, each liter jumped to 7,000 rials (22 cents) from 4,000 rials (12 cents).

That works out to about 83 cents a gallon under the new pricing structure, compared to 45 cents under the former. Each car has a monthly ration of 60 liters (15.85 gallons).

Ecuador Expels U.S. Military Group

(QUITO, Ecuador) — Ecuador has ordered all 20 Defense Department employees in the U.S. Embassy’s military group to leave the country by month’s end, The Associated Press has learned.

The group was ordered to halt operations in Ecuador in a letter dated April 7, said embassy spokesman Jeffrey Weinshenker.

The AP was first alerted to the expulsions by a senior Ecuadorean official who refused to be identified by name due to the information’s sensitive nature.

President Rafael Correa had publicly complained in January that Washington had too many military officers in Ecuador, claiming there were 50, and said they had been “infiltrated in all sectors.” At the time, he said he planned to order some to leave.

Weinshenker said that Washington provided $7 million in security assistance to Ecuador last year.


Seabed Search for Missing Malaysian Jet to Widen

(CANBERRA, Australia) — Authorities say the seabed search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is set to widen as a sonar scan of the most likely crash site deep beneath the Indian Ocean nears completion without yielding a single clue.

The Australian search coordination center said Friday that a robotic submarine had scanned 95 percent of a 310-square-kilometer (120-square-mile) search area since last week but had found nothing of interest.

The search area is a circle with a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) deep off the west Australian coast.

The center said the sub would begin searching outside the 10-kilometer radius if nothing was found of the plan that went missing March 8 with 239 people on board.

The Vatican

Pope’s Private Conversations Aren’t Church Policy

Pope Francis Visits The Church of St. Ignatius
Pope Francis on April 24, 2014 in Rome, Italy. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The Vatican denies that the pope wants to change the rule on whether divorcees and their new spouses can take the sacrament, after he reportedly told an Argentine woman whose first marriage had ended in divorce that she could take communion

The Vatican assured Catholics Thursday that Pope Francis’ private conversations will not become church policy after a phone conversation of his stirred controversy.

Pope Francis reportedly spoke on the phone to an Argentine woman who had written him for guidance. She said that her priest had not allowed her to take communion because her current husband’s previous marriage was never annulled. After the conversation, her husband, Julio Sabetta, claimed that the head of the Catholic Church told the woman she was free of sin.

“He said that she has been freed of all sin, that he blessed the whole family, that she’s free to take communion from here on out, and he asked that we pray for him,” Sabetta said, adding that after they hung up, the whole family hugged and wept together. “It was something amazing,” he said.

The account, which Sabetta posted on Facebook on April 21, led to speculation that the Pope wanted to changeVatican policy that currently prevent those who have remarried after getting divorced from access to the sacraments. This possibility was fueled by the fact that the pope has called a synod in October to discuss family issues, including contraception and divorce. The Vatican even sent out a questionnaire to all the world’s bishops asking for their input before the meeting.

But Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi denied that there would be a change in policy, according to the Associated Press: “consequences related to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred” from the pope’s private conversations.

“Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office.”


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Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Israel-Palestine Peace Talks Mired in Uncertainty

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during joint statements together with Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, not seen, at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012. Sebastian Scheiner—AP

Analysts say Netanyahu's announcement that Israel was suspending negotiations with the Palestinians could simply be a tactical move

Israel’s decision to suspend peace talks with the Palestinians might appear to signal the end of negotiations between the two sides—but the move has only served to create yet more uncertainty about their future.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday arrived as a thunderclap: after a five-hour meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet, the vote to suspend the negotiations that have been championed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was unanimous. But analysts said they understood the suspension to be just that—a pause in the negotiations “until the make-up of the new Palestinian government and its policy become clear,” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, the respected Israeli daily.

Netanyahu was incensed that Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who heads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party, had agreed to patch over a seven-year rift with Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose charter denies Israel’s right to exist. The reconciliation announced on Wednesday caught the Israeli government by surprise.

But does that mean the talks—which are set to expire on April 29—are over? “No, of course not,” says Efraim Inbar, the conservative head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “We’ll see what happens with Hamas.”

Kerry had to coax both sides into participating in the talks, which began in July, and neither has reported substantial progress. When U.S. efforts to extend them through the end of the year failed three weeks ago, Kerry said the Obama administration would re-assess its investment in the effort.

Still, both Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated they want to continue talking, and as a practical matter, Palestinian unity might even improve the prospects of a deal. The European Union welcomed the pact nominally ending the factional rift, which had divided the Palestinian public both politically and territorially, with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million Palestinians reside, while Fatah held sway on the West Bank, home to another 2.5 million.

A senior Fatah official on Thursday said the unity pact with Hamas was made with the understanding that the group would support the peace talks, regardless of what its charter says. “We wouldn’t have been prepared—or able—to sign a reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all the Palestinian factions that we are leading our nation to a two-states-for-two-nations solution,” former PA security chief Jabril Rajoub told Israel’s Army Radio. Rajoub tried to turn the tables on Netanyahu, pointing out that parties in his own governing coalition rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, yet talks proceeded anyway.

Inbar, who supports Netanyahu, says he understood the Israeli cabinet’s decision as a tactical move, calculated to push back at Abbas after the Palestinian leader took the initiative.

“It’s good for domestic politics,” Inbar says, of the Israeli cabinet vote. He adds that it could also stir the Obama administration to intercede on Israel’s behalf. “Maybe the Americans will wake up, I don’t know.”

For the time being, the Israelis have seized on the extremist reputation of Hamas as an opportunity to cast Abbas as the reckless party. After the reconciliation deal was announced, a post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page showed a photo of Osama bin Laden alongside an picture of Abbas shaking hands with a senior Hamas official who had publicly lamented the terror mastermind’s death. Below ran the caption: “This is President Abbas’ new partner.” What analysts call “the blame game” has played out in the background of the negotiations since their start, with each side quietly angling to avoid being seen as responsible for their assumed eventual collapse.

For most of that time, Israel appeared most vulnerable to the blame, largely because, as the talks proceeded nominally toward establishing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu steadily expanded the approximately 200 Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory where that state was expected to stand. Kerry appeared to seal that assumption earlier this month when he told a Senate committee that Israel’s approval of 700 more units in a settlement undermined U.S. efforts to extend the talks.

But as long as the fate of the talks remains unclear, so does the answer to the question of who might bear the blame for their end. For all the drama of Thursday’s cabinet vote, its announcement felt more incremental than final to many observers.

“It could be tactical leverage, or maybe something more substantial,” says Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a former Israeli peace negotiator, now at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University. “It could be a way to make sure that Hamas doesn’t gain too much influence inside whatever government emerges.”


Gunman Kills 3 American Doctors at Kabul Children’s Hospital

The motive for the attack remains unknown


Three American medical staff workers have dead and two more people were injured after an Afghanistan security officer shot them at a Christian nonprofit hospital in the capital of Kabul. The gunman was also injured in the attack, though conflicting reports describe the events that led up to the injury. The attacker’s identity also has yet to be revealed.

This is yet another in a string of attacks against non-Afghanis in the increasingly unstable capital city.




VICE Journalist Freed After 3 Days of Captivity in Ukraine

Simon Ostrovsky, who was abducted and held by pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine this week, speaks on a mobile phone as he arrives in a hotel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk after being freed, on April 24, 2014. Alexander Khudoteply—AFP/Getty Images

Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for VICE News, was freed on Thursday evening by the militants who captured him during his reporting trip in eastern Ukraine. The militants in Slavyansk are still holding numerous prisoners, including Ukrainian journalists

On Monday night, a group of five journalists were traveling in a rental car through the center of Slavyansk, the town in eastern Ukraine that has been taken over by pro-Russian militants, when they came to the final checkpoint on their trip back to their hotel. At the wheel was Simon Ostrovsky, an American reporter with VICE News, who had already driven with his passengers through three checkpoints on the way into town, each one manned by separatist fighters who peered into the car at the journalists’ faces. But it was only at the final one, near the militant-controlled police station in the center of Slavyansk, that the gunmen recognized Ostrovsky.

They had a wanted poster with his photograph on it, accusing him of “distorting” the truth in his coverage of the conflict in Ukraine and “spreading the lies of the Kiev junta,” a reference to Ukraine’s central government. With guns drawn, the militants then pulled all five journalists out of the car, including this TIME correspondent, lined them up outside the police station and read out the text of the wanted poster by the light of their headlamps. It demanded Ostrovsky’s capture for the series of video reports that he and his colleague, the photojournalist Frederick Paxton, had produced since early March – “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine.

The militants, overjoyed at their catch, then led Ostrovsky away at gunpoint and drove him to their security headquarters in the center of Slavyansk. Paxton, this correspondent and the two other journalists were also detained at gunpoint but released after a brief interrogation. The militants accused some of their detainees of being Western spies and agents of the Kiev authorities.

It would be almost three days before Ostrovsky’s colleagues would learn of his release on Thursday evening. Throughout his time in captivity, the separatist leader of the town where he was captured, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, batted away questions about his prisoner’s fate with a stream of inconsistent claims. At various points, he suggested that Ostrovsky was detained for his journalism, or for having an expired press accreditation, or for working as a spy. On at least two occasions the militant leader said publicly that Ostrovsky was being held as a prisoner of war in order to trade for other separatists who have been arrested by the Ukrainian government. During a bizarre press conference on Tuesday, Ponomaryov, a soap manufacturer who claimed the title of “people’s mayor” after seizing power last week, insisted that Ostrovsky was simply working on an “exclusive” story from inside the separatist’s security building and was not being held against his will. But dozens of requests to speak with Ostrovsky or see him were refused. His normally busy Twitter feed fell silent.

On Tuesday, VICE News confirmed that Ostrovsky was in danger. “We are aware of Simon Ostrovsky’s situation and are working to ensure the safety and security of our friend and colleague,” the statement said. Nearly two days of intensive efforts would pass before VICE News would release another statement about him, on Thursday, saying that the outlet was “delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health.”

On Twitter, some of Ostrovsky’s followers in Ukraine were quick to point out on Thursday that the militants in Slavyansk are still holding numerous prisoners, including Ukrainian journalists, highlighting the continuing danger posed by the separatist fighters who have taken over large chunks of the country’s eastern regions. “Ukraine is about to be kidnapped,” one remarked. On Thursday morning, the government forces of Ukraine mounted their first assault on a separatist checkpoint on the road leading to Slavyansk, turning it into a pile of burning tires and leaving between two and five separatists dead. Russia, which has threatened to intervene to protect the separatists, responded with a new set of military exercises at its border with Ukraine. So the fears of Ukraine’s imminent “kidnapping” may not be overblown. But whatever happens, Ostrovsky will now be able to get back to doing what he does best – reporting.


Rights Group Urges U.N. To Help Free Abducted Girls

(LAGOS, Nigeria) — A Nigerian rights group is urging the United Nations to help secure the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by extremists 10 days ago.

More than 40 of the girls and young women kidnapped from a remote northeastern school escaped by themselves but school officials say 230 still are missing.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project called Thursday for several U.N. agencies to “urgently intervene” and provide “international assistance and support to the Nigerian authorities to secure the release of the children and to ensure that they get back to school.”

Nigeria’s military said it mounted a “hot pursuit” operation.

The mass kidnapping and a massive explosion that killed 75 hours earlier in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, strengthened fears the Islamic uprising is spreading and the military unable to stop it.

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