New Delhi: India’s upstart anti-graft party faces a key test Thursday as the national capital votes in the first major stage of the country’s marathon general elections.
The third phase of voting begins at 7:00 am local time (01:30 GMT) in 92 constituencies, representing a fifth of the 543-seat lower house, across the capital and 13 other states, including Maoist insurgency-hit eastern India.
But analysts say the spotlight is on the Delhi birthplace of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), even if support for it may have lost some steam.
The AAP has struggled to shake the “quitter” tag used by critics to dismiss it following the dramatic resignation of party chief Arvind Kejriwal just 49 days after it took power in Delhi’s state elections.
The nine-stage elections, which kicked off on Monday are expected to vault to power the Hindu nationalist opposition at a time of low economic growth, seething anger over widespread corruption and warnings about religious unrest.
The 814-million-strong electorate is forecast to inflict a punishing defeat on the Congress party after its decade-long rule and elect the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by conservative hardliner Narendra Modi.
The AAP is contesting its first general elections since it was spawned by a 2011 anti-graft movement and rode a wave of public anger over a string of corruption scandals.
It has promised to clean up politics by weeding out politicians with criminal cases.
Nearly 10 per cent of politicians who contested Monday’s first phase of elections that wind up May 12 were charged with attempted murder, rape and other crimes, according to advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
Last month, ADR said 37 per cent of BJP candidates and 25 per cent of the Congress hopefuls announced so far faced criminal cases.
The AAP has fielded over 400 candidates as it pushes ahead with its national ambitions and Kejriwal has pitted himself against Modi in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.
The AAP won 28 of 70 seats in its maiden Delhi state elections. Although analysts say there is little chance the party will replicate its success nationally, the AAP still hopes to win at least 100 seats and says it is confident of winning five of the seven up for grabs in Delhi.
But Ganguli was sceptical. “Votes will go into their opponents’ hands this time. I would be surprised if they win even 10 seats nationally,” he said.
There are mounting signs of disillusion with the AAP with some voters slapping and smearing ink on Kejriwal and his colleagues at rallies, while they campaign without security in a bid to end the VIP culture of India’s political elite.
Kejriwal, who adheres to independence icon Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence credo, has consistently forgiven his attackers and went to the home Wednesday of a man who slapped him to hear his grievances.
Among the AAP candidates is the independence leader’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, Bollywood actor Gul Panag and former TV journalist Ashutosh.
Voters “realise the BJP and Congress are thoroughly corrupt and they want a change”, senior AAP leader Prashant Bhushan said, calling the party “the clean and honest alternative”.