India goes on high security alert ahead of mega polls

There are 900 million eligible voters in India. (AFP)
Updated 10 April 2019

India goes on high security alert ahead of mega polls

  • Around 80,000 soldiers, police and paramilitaries will be patrolling Chhattisgarh state
  • Indian Election Commission organizes one of the world’s biggest democratic elections

NEW DELHI: India went on high security alert Wednesday ahead of the start of its marathon election, after a campaign dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership that has focused on keeping the country safe from attack.
A bomb blast Tuesday blamed on Maoist rebels killed five people, including a lawmaker campaigning for Modi, heightened fears of election bloodshed.
Some 80,000 troops, police and paramilitaries will be deployed in troubled Chhattisgarh state — where the attack was carried out — when voting starts Thursday, state police chief D.M Awasthi said.
Maoist rebels are behind many of the long-simmering insurgencies in at least nine Indian states.
But the Election Commission, which organizes the world’s biggest democratic election with 900 million eligible voters choosing 543 MPs, insisted the attack would not change its schedule.
Seats in 20 states will be decided on the first of seven days of voting spread over six weeks.
Modi’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a second term, defending a landslide win over the opposition Congress party in 2014. The result is predicted to be close however.
Chhattisgarh is among sensitive states where polling is staggered over several weeks so security and administrative staff can be moved around.
The killing of a local leader of a Hindu nationalist group in Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday reinforced fears of trouble during voting. Parts of Kashmir will also vote on Thursday.
Gunmen burst into a Jammu hospital and shot dead the regional leader of the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is closely linked to Modi’s party.
Tensions also simmered in the eastern state of Odisha where two land mines were recovered by patrols, and in nearby Bihar where two roadside bombs were detonated.
Kashmir hit the headlines ahead of the election after 40 paramilitaries were killed in a suicide attack in February.
India blamed the attack on a Pakistan-based group and launched a cross-border air raid, which sparked a retaliatory strike by Pakistan that briefly brought the rivals close to a new war.
Modi has used India’s action against Pakistan to bolster his strongman image and divert attention from criticism over a lack of jobs across the country and a farmers’ debt crisis.
At a rally on Tuesday, Modi urged first-time voters to dedicate their ballot to the military who staged the air strike inside Pakistan.
Congress said the speech breached an Election Commission order that political parties should not use the armed forces for propaganda.
A biopic of the prime minister has also caused controversy, with the opposition Congress party waging a legal battle to prevent the showing of what it has called unfair propaganda.
The film however was given a censors’ certificate earlier in the week after the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal, and will be released on Thursday.
“We are very happy that we got the ‘U’ (universal) certificate from the Censor Board,” producer Sandeep Ssingh said in a statement.
Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, said the flattering portrayal of Modi would give an unfair advantage to his Hindu nationalist BJP.
The producers of two TV series were given warning notices by the Election Commission for promoting Modi’s pet schemes through their shows, PTI reported.
Under Indian election law, during the 48 hours before a state votes, the publication of any content deemed as campaigning — including adverts, films and even social media — requires Election Commission approval.
Gandhi, scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, filed his nomination papers Wednesday following a roadshow in his home constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
Amethi goes to the polls on May 6. The last vote is on May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23.
Various opinion polls have indicated an alliance led by Modi’s BJP will win up to 273 of the 543 parliament seats at stake, just one more than the required majority.


Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

Updated 13 October 2019

Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

  • EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down hopes Sunday of a breakthrough in his last-ditch bid to strike an amicable divorce deal with the European Union.
Negotiators went behind closed doors for intensive talks in Brussels after Johnson outlined a new set of proposals to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
They have very little time left to succeed.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline just two weeks away.
The 27 would ideally like to have a full proposal to vote on by then.
But the sides are trying to achieve in a few days what they had failed to in the more than three years since Britons first voted to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier called the weekend negotiations “constructive” enough to keep going for another day.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” Barnier stressed in a statement to EU ambassadors.
“Discussions at technical level will continue (Monday).”
Downing Street said Johnson also told his cabinet to brace for a cliff-hanger finish.
He reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Johnson rose to power in July on a promise not to extend Brexit for a third time this year — even for a few weeks.
Breaking that pledge could come back to haunt him in an early general election that most predict for the coming months.
Johnson is under parliamentary orders to seek a extension until January 31 of next year if no deal emerges by Saturday.
He has promised to both follow the law and get Britain out by October 31 — a contradiction that might end up being settled in court.
Outgoing EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said British politics were getting more difficult to decipher than the riddle of an “Egyptian sphinx.”
“If the British ask for more time, which they probably will not, it would in my view be a historical nonsense to refuse them,” Juncker told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.
Ireland’s Varadkar hinted on Thursday that he could support the talks running on up to the October 31 deadline if a deal seemed within reach.
The few details that have leaked out suggest a compromise around the contentious Irish border issue Britain’s Northern Ireland partially aligned with EU customs rules.
Whether such a fudge suits both Brussels and the more ardent Brexit backers in parliament who must still approve a deal should become clearer by the end of the week.
Britain will only avoid a chaotic breakup with its closest trading partners if the agreement is also passed by the UK parliament — something it has failed to do three times.
Johnson heads a minority government and must rely on the full backing of not only his own fractured Conservatives but also Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Johnson that “Northern Ireland must remain entirely in the customs union of the United Kingdom” and not the EU.
“And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” Dodds told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The comments do not necessarily rule out DUP support.
UK media are presenting Johnson’s mooted compromise as a “double customs” plan that could be interpreted to mean that Northern Ireland is leaving EU rules.
Yet details are still under discussion and the prime minister’s allies are urging lawmakers to give the British leader a chance.
Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled Sunday that he would wait for the outcome of the EU summit before trying to force an early election.
But he added that there was “a strong possibility” that those polls would come before the Christmas break.