The South Asia Channel

Big Turnout in Afghan Election; India Begins Largest Election Ever; Pakistani Taliban Prisoners Released

Bonus Read: "11 Things You Need to Know About the World's Biggest Election," Peter Bergen and Ana Swanson (CNN)

Afghanistan

Election already a victory

An estimated 7 million Afghans - 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters- showed up to vote in the presidential and provincial elections on Saturday in spite of the threat of violence from the Taliban and bad weather across the country (TIME, Reuters, BBC, NYT). After 12 years with President Karzai and decades of war and upheaval, Afghans were able to vote on a relatively open field of candidates. By noon, the number of people voting had surpassed numbers in the 2009 election, and lines were so long throughout the day that polling station hours were extended nationwide. Though the major attacks that the Taliban threatened did not materialize, there was limited violence over the weekend resulting in 23 deaths, such as one roadside bomb in the northern province of Kunduz that killed three people in a vehicle transporting ballot boxes on Sunday (Post).

Afghan and western officials warn that a number of the votes will be thrown out due to fraud and as officials begin counting the ballots, irregularities and complaints are surfacing (BBC, NYT). The Election Complaints Commission has received 1,200 complaints already - some about fraud, but most concerning the shortage of ballots in certain areas due to the unexpectedly high turnout (RFE/RL). It will be weeks before all the results are in and one of the eight presidential candidates will need to score over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run off election, but many are calling the high voter turnout and low violence a victory in and of itself in Afghanistan's first ever democratic transfer of power.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah appear to be the front-runners so far, with Zalmai Rassoul trailing far behind, but official results won't be released for weeks.

-- Emily Schneider

India

Voting begins in Indian general election

Voting began in the Indian general election on Monday, with millions in the country's remote northeast going to the polls (NYTNDTVGuardianTelegraph). Five voting districts in upper Assam and one in the neighboring state of Tripura launched the opening stage of the nine-phase Indian election. An estimated 8,000 polling stations in the region were expected to receive up to 7.5 million voters. By 3 p.m. on Monday, nearly 60% of voters in the five constituencies of Assam had exercised their votes (Times of India).

India's major newspapers ran sections on Monday to celebrate the world's biggest democratic event (Times of India,Hindustan Times). Polling will be conducted on nine separate days until May 12, with national results released on May 16. Some 815 million Indians are eligible to vote at 930,000 polling stations in the coming weeks. Polls suggest the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is set to win its largest number of seats ever in India's lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha, and that the ruling Congress party could end up with the lowest share of the popular vote since India's independence (FT). The Congress party has governed India for all but 13 years since the country won independence from Britain in 1947. 

The Telugu Desam Party in southern India has joined the BJP-led coalition, a partnership that could propel the BJP closer to the 272 seats it needs to form the next national government, reports said (Times of IndiaNDTV). According to the seat-sharing arrangement reached by the two parties, the BJP will contest five parliamentary seats and 15 assembly seats in Seemandhra (Andhra Pradesh) and eight Lok Sabha seats and 47 assembly segments in Telangana. Four sitting parliament members, a powerful regional governor from Rajasthan, and two men named as Congress parliamentary candidates have all defected to the BJP in recent months. 

BJP releases election manifesto

The BJP released its national manifesto on Monday, promising to tackle the key issues of corruption, illegal money, inflation, and policy paralysis if elected (NYTFTWSJBBCNDTVMintEconomic Times). The 52-page document was repeatedly delayed, leaving some analysts to speculate about divisions over economic policy within the party.  

Among other goals, the BJP promised to create a "non adversarial" tax environment and simplify the country's complicated tax laws, "strictly implement fiscal discipline," set aside a third of the seats in state assemblies and Parliament for women, and introduce a comprehensive national policy for energy conservation. The BJP also promised to roll back measures by the Congress party to open the multibrand retail sector to foreign direct investment, though it said it would open other sectors to foreign cash. The party promised faster infrastructure development, a massive low-cost housing program, job creation, and measures to control inflation, including a price-stabilization fund and special courts to prosecute hoarders and black marketers. It pledged "zero tolerance" toward internal and external security threats and promised to maintain a credible minimum deterrent in its nuclear weapons program (Economic Times).

The manifesto also made several controversial promises, including pledging to explore "within the constitutional framework" the construction of the Ram temple at a site where Hindu activists tore down the 16th century Babri mosque in December 1992 (NDTV). The manifesto reaffirmed the BJP's commitment to Hindu nationalism, pledging that India "shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus." The BJP also mentioned two other controversial promises - the removal of Article 370, which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and a Uniform Civil Code, which would unify the various laws that govern Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Parsis. Narendra Modi, the party's prime ministerial candidate, has steered clear of these topics while campaigning, although they have always been among the party's key poll pledges.

The ruling Congress Party released its election manifesto in late March, which promised to expand health care, housing, and other benefits for the poor and disadvantaged. The Aam Aadmi, or "Common Man," party, released its manifesto last week, promising tough action against corruption, a citizen's charter to punish slow or incompetent officials, radical devolution of power to the village level, and wide-ranging reform of the police (Guardian).

India's Sun Pharma buys troubled Ranbaxy

India's Sun Pharmaceutical Industries has agreed to purchase Ranbaxy, an Indian generic drugmaker that has been repeatedly barred from importing to the United States over safety concerns, for $3.2 billion in stock (FTWSJBBCTimes of India). The deal will create India's biggest pharmaceutical group and the world's fifth largest specialty generics company. Daiichi Sankyo, Japan's number two drugmaker and the controlling shareholder of Ranbaxy, will retain a 9 percent stake and a seat on the board. The agreement still requires shareholder and regulatory approvals.

Daiichi bought a 63.4 percent stake in Ranbaxy in 2008 for $4.7 billion. Barely six months later, Daiichi took a $3.7 billion writedown as the US Food and Drug Administration began a series of regulatory actions against the company. 

The FDA has barred imports from four out of five of Ranbaxy's India factories because of safety concerns. Before the ban, the US market accounted for around 40% of Ranbaxy's revenues. Sun Pharma has also faced regulatory action from the U.S.: Last month, the FDA banned imports from one of its Indian plants after regulators found that the factory was not "operating in conformity with good manufacturing practices." 

-- Ana Swanson

Pakistan

More Taliban prisoners released

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said on Saturday that the government will release 13 more Taliban prisoners to aid ongoing peace talks with the Taliban (Post, RFE/RL).  Speaking to reporters after a meeting between the Taliban and government peace committees, he said he hopes the Taliban will reciprocate the "goodwill gesture" and that by the time the next round of talks is held next week, the number of released prisoners could reach "around 30." The Taliban is seeking the release of some 800 prisoners from the government. On April 4, the Taliban extended their ceasefire until April 10 to allow the government to release the prisoners and pull back its troops (Dawn, RFE/RL). Peace talks have been ongoing since February.

 

At least four TTP militants, including key commander Kashed Kahn Mehsud, were killed in the South Waziristan region on Monday (Dawn, ET). Mehsud is believed to be a local commander of the Hakumullah Mehsud group. Taliban sources have not confirmed the deaths and it's unclear who was responsible for the attack.

TTP launch website

Meanwhile, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) announced the launch of its website on Saturday, which will host a magazine, videos, and interviews and statements from its leaders (Dawn).  Along with the TTP flag and verses from the Quran, the website also shows pictures of houses allegedly bombed by the Pakistani army and details the TTP position on the current peace talks with the government.

Sadequain on sale

Seven off-market pieces by the Pakistani artist Sadequain are set to be auctioned at Bonham's London branch on Tuesday (Dawn). Sadequain is considered to be one of the first Pakistani artists to have gained international fame at an early age - dubbed by French artists as the Pakistani Picasso - and his works consistently draw high prices. The current sale includes several pieces that the artist left behind in Paris in 1967 when he made and unplanned temporary visit to Pakistan, but for unexplained reasons never went back to Paris. Bonham expects that the pieces will sell for between 115,000 and 250,000 pounds sterling (between $190,600 and $372,915).

-- Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen 

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images