Amritsar, India — Black clad commandos scan the campaign crowds from observation towers as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appeals for votes in Punjab state from behind a bulletproof glass shield.
Barricades, metal detectors and submachine gun toting security men dominate the scene of Wednesday’s Punjab elections, making clear that Gandhi’s greatest foes are not opposition politicians but militants trying separate India’s richest region from the rest of the nation.
The voting is a crucial step in Gandhi’s plan to overcome an often violent Sikh separatist campaign for Punjab, but some analysts say his peace effort might gain more if his ruling Congress Party loses the polls.
The turmoil over Sikh dominated Punjab has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the last three years, including Gandhi’s own mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by Sikhs in New Delhi Oct. 31, 1984.
When the Punjab election campaign opened in early September, violence erupted quickly, killing six people in random attacks in the first’ week. Since then militants have kept a low profile but security officials fear they may be planning a bold stroke just before the polls open Wednesday.
The radicals hope to pull the Punjab India’s breadbasket and home to more than 12 million Sikhs out of the federal union, where they contend it has been discriminated against and underrepresented.
More than 80,000 security men have been deployed for the elections and the nearly 900 candidates vying for 115 state assembly seats and 13 seats in the national Parliament have been provided bodyguards and bulletproof vests.
Some candidates trying to show their bravery often disdain even rudimentary security precautions. “I am not afraid. I did not bother to bring my bodyguards,” Congress candidate Surinder Singh told a reporter at a political rally.
The elections are a test of an accord to settle long standing Sikh economic and political grievances signed July 24 by Gandhi and Harchand Singh Longowal, leader of the Sikh dominated Akali Dal Party.
Longowal was assassinated less than a month later.
Akali Dal moderates, led by acting President Surjit Singh Barnala, continue to support the Gandhi Longowal accord, risking not only their lives, but the embarrassment of losing the election to Gandhi’s better financed, better organized Congress. “Should the Akali Dal lose, would it be able to withstand the pressure that the militants would then exert on it? Would it then still be able to speak up for the accord?” asked political analyst Anand Sahay. “There is no clear-cut answer,”’ he wrote.
The fear that a loss for the Sikh moderates would be a blow to peace hopes in Punjab has led some analysts to conclude that Gandhi is not pushing hard for a victory.
“That the Congress did not want to go out of its way to create electoral problems (for the Akali Dal) was clear from the selection of its candidates,” said K. K. Katyal, political columnist of The Hindu newspaper.
No less than 80 of the 115 candidates for the state assembly are running in their first election. Twenty-seven successful candidates from the last elections in 1980, including the chief minister, were dropped by Congress.
Gandhi has repeatedly denied any deliberate attempt by his party to lose the elections.
But Congress might have a hard time losing, even if it tried.
Almost half of the electorate is Hindus who are unlikely to vote for a Sikh religious party, but many Sikhs support the Congress Party. The Akali Dal is split into numerous factions and militant Sikhs have called for an electoral boycott that could further dilute the Sikh vote.
The balloting, open to nearly 11 million registered voters, takes place Wednesday and vote counting takes place Thursday in 13 district centers with nearly complete returns expected by late Thursday night.
A recent opinion poll by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion showed the Congress Party leading the ’ Akali Dal by 55 percent to 42 percent. :
Khushwant Singh noted Sikh historian, journalist and Member of Parliament, said that whether Gandhi wants to win or not, a Congress victory would be “a disaster” for his peace efforts.
“It would be almost back to square one,” he said.