Punjab Sends Mixed Message to India's Ruling Party

INDIA'S ruling Congress (I) Party won the vast majority of the legislative seats in elections held last week in troubled Punjab state. But the results are also being interpreted here as a defeat for the central government.

Punjab has seen years of violence between militant Sikh groups, some of whom want their own nation, and the government, which has fought to maintain order. The election of a legislative assembly and state government is intended to end New Delhi's almost five-year administration of Punjabi affairs.

Two factors suggest that the Congress government has imposed "an election which now appears to be ... aimed at foisting a puppet government" on the people of Punjab, says Subramaniam Swamy, a leading opposition member of Parliament.

First, voter turnout was low - official estimates range from 22 percent to 28 percent - because of a boycott called by most of the Sikh political parties and because of the threat of violence that hung over the election. In many districts not a single voter cast a ballot, in spite of nearly 300,000 troops and police officers mobilized to guarantee public safety.

"The militants won," the Economic Times newspaper editorialized on Saturday. "Their call for a boycott was a full-blooded poll."

And proportionately more of the state's minority Hindus voted than the majority Sikh population, suggesting that the election is even less reflective of Sikh political inclinations than the turnout indicates.

Congress candidates won 12 of Punjab's 13 seats in India's Parliament, and 87 of the 117 state legislative seats. Although there was talk before the election of a coalition between Congress politicians and members of the Akali Dal (Kabul) party, the sole Sikh political group to contest the election, the Congress contingent is now forming a government on its own.

Concern is mounting that the election will further split Punjab's Sikhs and Hindus and boost the legitimacy of the militants, who argue that Sikhs will never get fair treatment from a Congress administration. The party is indelibly connected with the June 1984 storming of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The Congress (I) Party, which now holds a minority position in India's Parliament, held the elections in order to gain control of Punjab's parliamentary seats, a former Sikh political leader, said yesterday in New Delhi on condition of anonymity. This view has also been voiced by other critics here, but the Congress government says it wants only to return Punjab to normalcy.

Bharat Wariavwalla, of Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the central government must shift more power to the states and continue to hold elections in Punjab.

Some political groups then would realize that "extremism is not going to work; the Indian state is too powerful and is going to crush it," Mr. Wariavwalla says.

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