Local elections were held in three Indian states yesterday amid some Maoist violence aimed at disrupting a vote seen as a key test of the ruling Congress party’s popularity since its landslide national win in May.
The polls in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh could also help dictate the pace and scope of reform measures such as disinvestment in state-run firms and reviving economic growth.
Analysts say a good performance in the state polls could convince Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the government can tackle key reforms and a new tax code without any electoral cost. Maoists and police exchanged fire near a polling booth in the forested, rebel stronghold of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra state where they killed 17 police last week.
Navy, air force and paramilitary forces guarded the financial hub of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, which was attacked by Islamist gunmen last year, killing 166 people.
“Polling is going on peacefully all over the state except for this one incident,” A.N. Roy, a top police officer overseeing election security in Maharashtra told NDTV news channel, referring to the Maoist attack.
Singh has called the Maoists one of the gravest threats to India’s security and last week chaired a meeting of the Cabinet to plan a big strike.
A weak and divided Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition Hindu nationalist party, may help the Congress retain most of the 90 seats in northern Haryana and 60 seats in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
But in prosperous Maharashtra, where the Congress and its Nationalist Congress Party ally are battling a combination of the BJP and the hardline Hindu party Shiv Sena for 288 seats, an anti-incumbency sentiment may make the race tougher.
The breakaway faction of Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, could also split the vote, perhaps leading to a hung assembly and delaying projects such as plans to upgrade Mumbai’s crumbling infrastructure.
Earlier, Maoists blew up communication towers, rail tracks and a village council office in eastern India to protest an expected government crackdown on their activities, officials said yesterday.
The overnight attacks in Bihar and Jharkhand states stranded trains for hours, and buses stayed off roads in rebel-controlled areas, but no one was reported hurt.
The rebels launched their two-day protest on Monday, also in the states of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa.
The rebels, who say that they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), have been fighting for more than three decades in several Indian states, demanding land and jobs for agricultural laborers and the poor.
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