Indian women accuse political parties of 'killing' men with free booze as voting comes to a close

Women wielding rolling pins have launched a campaign to stop voters from accepting drugs and liquor during elections

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:45pm

As Indian voters head to polling booths on the last day of voting, Indian wives have been stepping up a campaign against political parties handing out booze which they say caused many male voters to drink themselves to death.

The problem is felt most acutely in the state of Punjab, where the women’s campaign against election freebies such as whisky and heroin has been concentrated, according to a Bloomberg report today.

One Punjab area – Maqboolpura, a neighbourhood in Amritsar – is dubbed the “village of widows” as thousands of men in their 20s and 30s die due to complications from substance addition – a problem that worsens during the free-flowing election season, the report said.

The Belan Brigade was started months ago by 42-year-old Anita Sharma and named after the rolling pins that the women brandish when they head to villages across India.

The campaign asks women to berate men who accept such goods from party workers and to stop them from destroying their families, the report said.

“Don’t let your husbands vote for someone because they gave out liquor or drugs,” Sharma was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. “Every one of you has to take a stand and aggressively stop this liquor distribution in your neighbourhood.”

Millions of Indian voters wrapped up the country’s mammoth national election today, braving the searing sun on the final day of polling. With 814 million eligible voters, India has been voting in phases over six weeks, with results expected Friday.

Political parties give males liquor and drugs because they decide who their families will vote for, according to an election monitoring group.

At the same time, the parties have promised to build hospitals and rehab centres.

“Soon there won’t be any men left to marry our daughters,” Rani, a woman who attended a brigade meeting, said. “The men get drugs or alcohol or whatever else, but it’s us – we’re the ones who end up crying.”

According to the report, Punjab’s election commission has seized 700,000 litres of alcohol, 150kg of heroin and 30 tonnes of opium poppy husks in the two months before April 29. It also gets around 60 complaints of illegal handouts by parties each day.

The BJP’s carefully crafted and well-financed campaign, led by prime minister candidate Narendra Modi, promises good governance at a time when the ruling Congress party has been plagued by repeated scandals.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old vice-president, has generally failed to inspire the public, leaving many analysts to predict that the BJP will likely emerge with the largest number of seats.

Also competing for the top job are Arvind Kejriwal, the chief of India’s anti-corruption party, and Ajay Rai of the Congress party.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Centre said 63 per cent of Indians prefer the BJP over Congress.

The Election Commission says the turnout percentage over the six weeks in 502 parliamentary constituencies until May 8 was 66.27 per cent, up from 58.13 per cent in the last elections in 2009.

Although generally considered free and fair, the poll has been marred by clashes and schemes to influence voters. The voting opened in West Bengal state today, where Ajay Dasgupta, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) spokesman, accused governing Trinamool Congress workers of firing at his party supporters, wounding four of them.

The clash was reported in a village 35 kilometres northeast of Calcutta, the state capital. The Trinamool Congress party denied the charge.

Meanwhile, in Punjab, days before the last day of voting, men were seen walking away with bottles of whisky from what they said were a group of political party workers.

“When the party guys give money and liquor, I’ll take it,” Jeet Kumar Deo told Bloomberg after he walked away from the group. “But when I go into the booth, I can vote for anyone I like. They have no control over that.”

Why does India’s election take so long?

Almost 814 million adult Indians were eligible to vote, making it the biggest election in history. Organisers say it would have been impossible to operate and guard nearly 930,000 polling stations on a single day. The first day of voting was on April 7 and the last today, with election results finally due on Friday.

What’s at stake?

India is the world’s second-most populous country, a key member of the G20 global grouping and an increasingly important voice for developing countries on issues from climate change to global trade deals. It is home to a third of the world’s poor while being the 10th-biggest economy globally.

Local survey shows voters are fed up with corruption, worried about jobs and price rises, and ready for a change of leadership after 10 years of centre-left rule by the Congress party.

Fears about India’s religious harmony have also been raised, with Congress warning that under Hindu nationalist opposition frontrunner Narendra Modi, the country could see violence between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority.

How accurate are the pollsters?

Their projections have been wrong in the past, most notably in 2004 when they failed to forecast a Congress win. They also failed to predict the stunning results of the Delhi state assembly elections last December when the party of anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal shocked the BJP and Congress in its electoral debut and seized power.

It’s difficult to accurately gauge the opinions of India’s mostly rural 1.2 billion people, and its first-past-the-post voting system means minor swings in sentiment can skew the results significantly.

When will a new government take office?

If no party wins a majority, the president will ask the biggest party to put together a coalition with smaller ones.

That is likely to lead to days, and possibly weeks, of intense negotiations.