About Tom Walker

Tom Walker graduated with a 1st Class Honours degree in History from the University of Durham and will begin an MSc in Contemporary India at the University of Oxford in October 2009. He is currently interning at The Statesman, a newspaper based in Kolkata. He recently worked as an online editorial assistant with the security think tank RUSI and co-founded a politics and satire magazine within the University of Durham.

Articles by Tom Walker

This week's guest editors

Sri Lankan military prepares for end game

The Sri Lankan military is preparing to mount an attack on a 20 sq km no-fire zone in the north of the country where many senior Tamil Tigers leaders are believed to be hiding. Government security forces claim to have killed at least 525 Tiger rebels over the past few days as part of a large-scale offensive intended to conclude the long-running ethnic conflict in the region. 

The area, which the army had designated a safe zone for civilians, is claimed by the UN and other international organisations to contain up to 150,000 civilians. The Sri Lankan government disputes this figure, but is describing its planned offensive in the area as "the largest humanitarian intervention by a conventional military force in modern times." Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been in bullish mood, claiming that the mythical belief that the Tigers were "unconquerable" had been shattered. 

The offensive has displaced many in the previously Tamil-dominated regions. A record 2,127 civilians sought shelter in camps in Mullaitivu yesterday. The representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Walter Kaelin called for the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the zone and requested a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian organizations access to the area. 

The shrill tone of political discourse  

A Sikh journalist threw a shoe at the home minister P Chidambaram during a press conference. Jarnail Singh, a columnist with the daily Dainik Jagran, was protesting at the Central Bureau of Investigation's decision to clear the former Congress politician Jagdish Tytler of involvement in inciting the murder of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. The riots were sparked by the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. 

The Election Commission has continued to remain in the public eye as further accusations of making "hate speeches" are hurled at politicians of various political parties. After the controversy over Varun Gandhi's recent speech (see "Gandhi vs Gandhi" on openIndia), Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has been criticized for stating that he would have "crushed [Varun] under a roller" had he been the country's Home Minister.  

In an echo of the Gandhi case, D Srinivas, the President of the Congress Committee in Andhra Pradesh state, has caught the attention of the Election Commission for threatening to sever the hands of "those who point a finger at minorities." Despite Srinivas' claims that he was promoting peace, a recording of his speech is set to be examined today.  

The violent tenor of the debate in recent days has caused concern for political observers. Santosh Desai, writing in the Times of India, laments that "extreme positions seem to have become a surrogate for significance and clarity" in today's political discourse, arguing that debates are being framed by those who take the extreme points of view.  

Rural to urban shift? 

With little over a week before the polling process begins, parties and analysts are tracking long and short-term political trends in an attempt to prepare themselves for the outcome of the polls. The re-drawing of electoral boundaries according to population size, or delimitation, looks likely to be an influential factor in the elections. The boundaries of 499 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in the country have been shifted, raising widespread uncertainty over the outcome of polls in several constituencies. 

The Indian Express suggests that the process may shift power for the first time towards urban voters, who will now elect nearly a quarter of all candidates in India. In the southern state of Karnataka, parties which traditionally based campaigns on the slogan of "food, clothing and shelter" are now placing increased emphasis on infrastructure, airports, roads and water supply, it reports.  

Some analysts have suggested that this trend will favour the BJP, which has traditionally performed well in urban areas. However, an internal survey carried out by the party has indicated that it expects to drop votes in the capital city Delhi and the nearby state of Rajasthan. The survey argues that the party will need to achieve at least 40 to 50 seats more than the Congress Party in order to form a government at the centre.  

Meanwhile, the number of independent candidates standing for election has increased once again this year. Less than one per cent of the 37,000 candidates that have stood for election since independence have gained seats in parliament, a figure that has steadily diminished since 1952. In the 2004 election over 90 per cent of the independents forfeited their deposits. 

Bollywood star barred from contesting elections

The Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt has been refused the right to contest the parliamentary Lok Sabha elections by India's supreme court. Dutt was sentenced to six years in jail in 2007 after being found guilty of possessing firearms acquired from terrorists involved in bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993. The blasts, believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the massacre of Muslims in the city earlier in the year, killed at least 250 and injured 700. 

Dutt, who was cleared of involvement in the blasts themselves, was granted bail in November 2007. He announced plans to stand for election in Lucknow, the capital of the electorally-important state Uttar Pradesh, as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party (SP) in early 2009. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the actor's sentence could not be suspended for the purposes of the election. 

The Samajwadi Party's general secretary Amar Singh said that a member of the ruling Congress Party had earlier threatened to cancel Dutt's bail if he continued to stand for the seat. The party has also courted controversy recently by forging links with two leaders said to have been involved in the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu nationalists in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh in 1992. The SP, which gains much of its support from the Muslim minority in the state, had previously been strongly critical of the handling of the mosque's demolition.

Seven Bollywood actors stood as candidates in the 2004 parliamentary elections with as many as 29 others involved in campaigning, and many more are expected to join the fray in the forthcoming polls. They frequently draw large crowds to political rallies: the actress Shatabdi Roy was recently injured after a podium gave way under the weight of her fans.

Security alerts raise concerns throughout the country

A motorbike bomb exploded less than a mile from an election meeting held by the foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, in Guwahati, the capital of the eastern state of Assam, killing one person and injuring sixteen. Police have blamed the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy for Assam since 1979, for the blast. The Telegraph (Kolkata) reports that this incident bore several similarities to an attack on the Home Minister P Chidambaram in January this year.

Reports of suspected LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) militants entering Kerala by sea have led to a heightened security alert across the southern state. Security forces are concerned about the involvement of Indians from Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu in assisting the militants. The LTTE's plenipotentiary for international relations Selvaraja Pathmanathan has stated that he hopes to win the support of the Indian government by leveraging the militant organisation's popularity in Tamil Nadu. A recent poll by the news network NDTV showed that 66 per cent of respondents in Tamil Nadu believe that the Indian government should support the LTTE's demand for an independent Tamil state in the north of Sri Lanka.

Security levels have been tightened in all properties of the Taj Group, which owns the talismanic Taj Mahal hotel that was targeted in the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, after a threat was sent to the group's Fisherman's Cove resort in Chennai. The email, which came from an unidentified source, said that an explosion was to take place in the Taj Hotel in south Mumbai.

Bribery rife in election campaigning

Pragya Singh, writing in Outlook, claims that politicians' use of bribery to win votes is increasing dramatically during campaigning for the upcoming elections. The article estimates that a constituency with four candidates will see between US$ 1 to 3 million spent during the polls, of which only US$ 200,000 is officially authorised. The bribing of voters has become a ritual, according to Bhibhu Mohapatra, a fellow at the India Development Foundation.

The comedian Jaspal Bhatti, who founded his Recession Party on 31 March to contest elections in Chandigarh, the capital of the state of Punjab, has said that his party will seek to legalise "all underhand and illegal deals done by political parties and politicians" after assuming power "through means fair and foul." The party's manifesto includes pledges to establish a quota for fools in parliament and to encourage slums around Chandigarh to help the party win votes in future elections.

UN human rights official urges reforms

Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the Indian government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (ADSPA) during a visit to New Delhi. The act gives Indian security forces wide-ranging emergency powers, which are alleged to have been misused in the strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir and India's north-eastern states.

Despite recent claims by Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, that the act was to be scrapped, the Indian Express reports that Pillay was "politely but firmly told" by Central government ministers that this would not be possible.

Pillay was also rebuffed after proposing that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, be reformed. She stated that she would continue to pursue such issues after the general elections.

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Improved US-India relations non-proliferation

In the Obama administration's first policy speech on India, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg asked the Indian government to join an international approach to produce safe nuclear power and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but has been unofficially admitted into the "nuclear club" after the controversial Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and the lifting of a ban on nuclear trade by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group in September 2008. Also in openDemocracy on the Indo-US nuclear deal:

Javits Rajendran on the controversial trust vote in July 2008

Also speaking at the event in Washington, Shyam Saran, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy for nuclear issues and climate change, suggested that India was likely to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the future if other nations moved in the same direction.

The first overseas journey of the new CIA Director Leon Panetta included a three day stop-over in New Delhi. B Raman, writing for Rediff News, sees this as a move designed to simultaneously assure India of continued US assistance in investigating the Mumbai attacks while allowing Barack Obama to assess the Indian political scene.

Varun Gandhi debate rages on

The row between the Election Commission of India (EC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the remarks of Varun Gandhi continues. The BJP, which initially distanced itself from the comments, has come out in support of Varun and condemned the Commission. Debate has centred over whether the EC, as a constitutional body, should be able to recommend denying the nomination of candidates. The Deccan Chronicle argues that "the Commission has unfortunately shifted the issue from the culpability of Varun Gandhi to its own wrong response to the matter," while the Hindustan Times suggests that the EC had gone beyond its remit.

However, The Telegraph states that the EC's decision was "reasserting a fundamental principle of Indian democracy - secularism - when the largest democratic exercise is about to take place," and media coverage was, in general, dominated by attacks on Varun Gandhi and the culture within the BJP that gave rise to his speech. The basics

Three major coalitions will compete in the upcoming elections:

the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dominated by the Congress Party;

the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP);

and the Third Front, an informal group made up of parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP.

The UPA has been in power since 2004.

Court cases and poll controversies

The EC has come under further strain after the news channel NDTV broadcast recordings of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, making threatening and sexist remarks towards a district magistrate. The BJP has seized on the fact that the EC did not immediately make an investigation into the case as evidence of the organisation's dual standards. Mulayam was recently at the centre of controversy after appearing to distribute money at an election rally during the national festival of Holi.

Sensitivities are high throughout the country, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in court accused of using religious symbols in campaigning and the executive president of the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena, Uddhav Thackeray, at risk of censure from the EC after comments made about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor, contesting from the electoral seat of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, is also due to appear in court after allegations that he disrespected the national anthem by placing his hand over his heart as it was sung at a recent event.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by National Election Watch, a group of over 1,200 NGOs, found that 29 candidates from various parties in the forthcoming elections had criminal records. Trilochan Sastry, the founder of the group, said that records were not available for all candidates and that the actual number could be higher than this.

High-level dispute adds to BJP's troubles

Political loyalties are coming under strain as parties prepare for the Indian parliamentary elections and the leading party in the opposition coalition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is not coping well with the pressure. Behind in the polls and fissured with internal divisions, the party's problems were exacerbated today by conflict within its leadership and inflammatory rhetoric from one of its young leaders. 

The BJP general secretary and key electoral strategist Arun Jaitley has refused to attend candidate selection, as a split between the party's leaders widens. Jaitley is protesting against the party president Rajnath Singh's appointment of the businessman Sudhanshu Mittal to run the BJP campaign in the North Eastern states of India. He has vowed not to attend any meetings until Mittal's appointment is revoked. Mittal, a former aide of the late leader Pramod Mahajan, is a controversial figure within the party because of his economic largesse and business links. 

The dispute has hit the party at a difficult time: the Chief Minister of the southern state of Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, is also refusing to attend the meetings because of a personal dispute, while the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) ended their 11-year alliance with the BJP in Orissa last week. The basics

Over 700 million people will vote in the 2009 elections, in what is the world's largest exercise in democracy. Elections will be held in five phases between 16 April and 13 May. The final result is expected to be announced on 16 May.

Senior party leader LK Advani has strenuously denied that rifts exist within the party, but Rediff News reports that insiders are seeing Jaitley's actions as an attempt to gain control of the BJP.

Varun Gandhi filmed stoking communal sentiments

The BJP leader Varun Gandhi has faced widespread condemnation after being recorded by the news channel CNN-IBN making communal statements at a party rally in Pilphit in the populous central state of Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Election Commission has directed Uttar Pradesh's chief electoral officer to file a criminal case against Varun. 

The grandson of Indira Gandhi, Varun is seen by many within the BJP as the face of the party's third-generation leadership. He claims that the recording has been "tampered with." Varun apparently states: "If anyone thinks that Hindus are weak and leaderless...then I swear on the Gita [an ancient Indian text] that I will cut that hand." BJP leaders have been shocked by the recording, but local political observers said that it was in keeping with the general pro-Hindu rhetoric of Varun's campaign.  

(Varun is a member of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has historically been at the forefront of the Congress Party. Sonia Gandhi, the current Congress party leader, is the widow of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (Varun's uncle). Their son Rahul Gandhi (Varun's cousin) is being groomed as a future Congress party leader.)

The party advised all its nominees to "practice caution and restraint in their speeches" later today. India is a constitutional democracy with two houses of parliament, the directly-elected House of the People or Lok Sabha, and the Council of States or Rajya Sabha, elected by the legislators of each Indian state.

The President is the head of state and appoints the Prime Minister, who governs the country according to the make-up of the Lok Sabha.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) largely ignored the challenge of the BJP in its election manifesto, which it released on Monday. The Indian Express notes that the manifesto devotes less than a page to the right-of-centre, Hindu nationalist party, choosing instead to focus on attacking on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Third Front's prospects questioned

The prospect of a "Third Front" coalition - likely to include the CPM as major players - playing a significant role in the electoral results has been widely downplayed. The Times of India observes that the coalition is a collection of disparate political parties only together because they are not part of either the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the UPA, while The Asian Age sees the situation as a "spectacular display of opportunism in unison."

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati has appeared reluctant to contest the elections as part of a Third Front, while the CPM general secretary Prakash Karat said on Monday that the front would be formed after the elections if its constituent parties were successful.

Muthalik banned from Mangalore

A court in Mangalore in the southern state of Karnataka has banned Pramod Muthalik, head of the right-wing Hindu group the Sri Ram Sene, from entering the Dakshina Kannada district for one year.  Muthalik claimed responsibility for attacks on young women in a Mangalore pub on 24 January. The Sri Ram Sene also threatened to target couples on Valentine's Day in protest at "the dilution of Hindu culture and tradition." Competition centres around three major coalitions: the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dominated by the Congress Party; the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and the Third Front, an informal group made up of parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP. The UPA has been in power since 2004.

The attacks sparked outrage across India and protests from women's groups such as The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, whose decision to send pink underwear to the Sri Ram Sena garnered widespread national and support through online campaigning. Muthalik said he would appeal against the order, claiming that the state government was harassing organisations working for the cause of hindutva (Hindu nationalism).

IPL dates cause for concern

Confusion reigns over the dates for the Indian Premier League cricket tournament following the Lahore attacks. State governments have demanded extra security forces from the Central government in order to host the matches, leading to speculation that it will be impossible to hold the tournament and elections simultaneously as planned.

Swapan Dasgupta, writing in the Times of India, suggests that this could prove beneficial for Indian democracy. Dubbing cricket "a weapon of mass distraction," he warns that it could "prove to be the opium of the voting classes, by lulling India into the belief that it doesn't matter who runs the country so long as there are runs to cheer."

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