Thursday, April 22, 2004

Yeh Mera India!!! :-)

India becomes the first democracy in the world to conduct the National Parliamentary Elections through an electronic voting machine.

But where else in the world will you find an Electronic Voting Machine and the election officers being transported on an elephant?!!!... I personally find it both delightful and endearing....

Two interesting articles which describe the elections:

A High Tech Affair by Scott Baldauf (Christian Science Monitor):

"The world's largest democracy doesn't do anything small.

Just ask A.N. Jha. As deputy election commissioner, it is Mr. Jha's job to ensure that, starting Tuesday, 675 million eligible voters will be able to cast their votes from the smallest desert village of Rajasthan to the rain-soaked jungles of Manipur, and from the Himalayan heights of Uttaranchal to the dreamy aquamarine coasts of Tamil Nadu.

There is one complication. This will be the first all-electronic Indian election, with some 725,000 electronic voting machines in every voting station in the country. No small task. But no hanging chads for India, thank you.

An experiment in cutting-edge voting is only part of the story of India's election process. Democracy is still a passionate exercise here - full of gimmicks and movie-star glamour, high technology and cheap thuggery, and, quite often, serious ideas about India's future place in the world. All of this contributes to much higher voter turnouts than one sees in the US. The winners may be convicts or holy men or seasoned pros, but the end result - and the three-week process of voting - can be as entertaining as a Bollywood thriller.

Present opinion polls give the advantage to the current ruling coalition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but no election in India is ever merely about results.

First, getting voting machines to the masses is a Herculean task, requiring the organizational skills of a general, the energy of a long-distance runner, and the patience of the mahatma. "It's a huge number of people, a huge, huge exercise," says Jha, taking a breather between logistics meetings last week. "If things go well, and I'm sure we'll pull it off, as we have been doing for more than 50 years, maybe I'll take a break after that."

In India, "people, and especially the poor, see their vote as an asset that must be used," says D.L. Sheth, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Old Delhi.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm at election time. It's turned into a carnival, and people go out into the streets and celebrate, take part in parades, with music and lights. Maybe it's because so many other things in life are not so easy, and here you can get a sense of one's efficacy, what one vote can do."

The other article in Outlook by Edward Luce decribes the colourful nature of this vibrant democracy:

"One of the principal challenges of being a foreign correspondent in India is to resist succumbing to the caricatures that still occasionally persist about the country-not least among commissioning editors back home.

Images of debt-collecting eunuchs, exotic fakirs and widows on funeral pyres unfortunately still excite many an otherwise well-informed mind. A more subtle variant are the cliches that surround India's electoral process.

One could almost write it blindfold: "As India's 675 million voters go to the polls...this teeming, vibrant, colourful democracy...the largest electoral exercise in history.

..India's 6,00,000 villages cherish their hard-won right to...often only by recognising the party's symbol can the illiterate...." And so on.

All of the above may well be true. But as George Orwell never tired of pointing out, when a writer resorts to cliches it is a sure sign he hasn't given the subject much thought. India is indeed going to the polls in what is indeed a daunting but evidently achievable logistical feat.

The problem is how to cover it. Most foreign newspapers have only one correspondent, occasionally two. Even if you possessed preternatural energy and a million air miles, there would not be sufficient days in the campaign to visit even half of India's states-and even then only for a short while.

Nor can one so easily deploy the time-honoured but perfectly respectable device of alighting on a small belt of the country to illustrate a broader national theme. As Yogendra Yadav, NDTV's ubiquitous psephologist (and required nightly viewing for Indian and foreign journalists alike) points out, India's democracy rarely experiences national waves. It can more accurately be seen as an agglomeration of 28 separate state polls.

In the UK, it would be a relatively simple matter-drop in for a quick pint and ask the pub regulars whether sterling should be abolished (but remember to bring a pair of boxing gloves). Even in the US it isn't rocket science: visit a suburb where a call centre has recently closed down and ask whether Kerry's message is resonating.

But in India it doesn't really work as well. I doubt very much the voters of Tamil Nadu are swayed one way or another by the NDA's peace process with Pakistan. How many people of the Northeast would care about whether or not a temple will be constructed in Ayodhya? Will the villagers of Bihar be weighing the same issues as the telecom executives of Bangalore?

Of course, two of India's 40 or so electable parties are conducting national campaigns. But the BJP's India Shining campaign-I'm still not sure what it was renamed when the party started paying for it out of its own pocket-is evidently customised for different audiences.

If proof of this were required, then go back over what Advani said to audiences on the various stages of his Bharat Uday Yatra. At some stops, India's deputy prime minister was full of shining. At others he talked of Hindu-Muslim amity. Then at the next one his ambition to build a "magnificent" Ram temple suddenly appeared again.

Congress is little better (actually it is noticeably less professional than the BJP in its media management). One day India is definitely not shining anywhere. The following day India is in fact shining in some pockets but only because of Manmohan Singh. On Sunday dynasty is irrelevant. On Monday morning its leader talks of her pride of being a mother when her son files his nomination for the family constituency.

Then there are the regional and caste parties. Do we take the DMK at face value when it says it is part of a secular front to defeat Hindutva? Mightn't it change its mind again if the NDA comes back to power? Then there are the Samajwadis and the BSPs whose shifting affiliations make Bill Clinton look like a paragon of marital fidelity.
And, of course, there is Sharad Pawar whose unshakeable opposition to lineal descent has suddenly gone all lateral. Nor should one overlook the CPI(M) whose ideological distaste for Mr Shourie's disinvestment programme in New Delhi is matched only by its enthusiastic privatisation drive in Calcutta.

India is at times a confusing place. But complexity should never be the enemy of clarity. As an outsider, the foreign correspondent has the perfect excuse to take a bird's eye view every now and then.

Here is mine, for what it is worth: Nobody owns economic reform-when in power everyone embraces it, even Mulayam does so nowadays. So whoever comes to power, India's economy will or will not continue to shine, depending on your perspective.

The same cannot be said of India's history of liberalism and tolerance, which shines-or should shine-out of every school textbook in this country (it should also be part of the curriculum in Britain, my own country, which was morally humiliated by India's inspiring freedom struggle).

I am married to an Indian and I am proud of her political heritage. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this legacy is being challenged and that all those who cherish it will see this election as an important moment in India's political odyssey. When I was asked to write this piece, my instructions were to keep it light-hearted and to write it from a foreigner's perspective. I'm afraid the first proved too hard.

In fact, this has been always the flavour of Indian elections, as this article from the 1999 issue of Christian Science Monitor shows:

"Wild and footloose pachyderms that stampede local voters. A desert border so remote that polling booths arrive by camel caravan. One jungle district so inaccessible that only three voters are registered. (Known as the "callous trio," they didn't show up last time.) A candidate for parliament who dispatches trained parrots to drop tiny leaflets with his party's insignia stamped on them.

Welcome, as it were, to India's national elections - or rather what is left of them. On Sunday the final votes are cast in what, if not the most orderly elections in the world, are certainly the largest and most colorful.

In the past month, India has cast its ballots for the fourth time in five years - a sometimes literally riotous affair, with nearly 5,000 candidates, 550 million voters, and 850,000 polling booths spread across a subcontinent that includes the 35 Andaman and Nicobar islands sprinkled over 600 square miles.

Actually, this election - a face-off between the secular Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - has been alternately grim, banal, and ignored. News tracks what can be called the downside: widespread voter fraud. Scandals. Low turnout. The ugliest rhetoric Indians can remember. Election eve drunken bashes designed to keep voters happy and "voting right."

The killing of several candidates - and one near Bombay who was charged in mid-campaign with murder.

Yet in India, that isn't the whole story. The 50-plus-year-old democracy is simply rife with funny, quirky, charming, and just plain unusual vignettes that could match any candid-camera home-bloopers script in the United States. There is the magician in Calcutta who blindfolded himself in a car pasted up with campaign posters and tried to drive through the city. There's that chief minister in Uttar Pradesh whose helicopter pilots couldn't find the right town and landed red-faced in a village in the wrong state.

Of course, there are plenty of good elephant tales. Those wild tuskers in Meghalaya who stampede voters were countered this year by locals wielding cymbals and drums, and fortified by tame elephants who know how to "calm down" their ancestral pachyderm friends who come out of the hills hungry in late summer. A local candidate may have said it best however: "Elephants have strong senses and can distinguish between good and evil. So they will not harm my voters." (Obviously, he's been accepting pach money.)

Not to be, um, forgotten, is the "victim" elephant in Uttar Pradesh. Pushpakali is a government "employee" at a national park who gives rides to tourists. Having just given birth to a tiny trunked calf, she was to be transferred to the local zoo. Yet Pushpakali's maternal transfer was postponed due to a government "code of conduct" rule that disallows employees to be shifted during national elections. Mother and son stood by while local officials deferred their interpretation of the code to the national Election Commission. What's clear is that after Oct. 3, the final vote, Pushpakali will take a year off with maternity benefits that include free treatment, food, and a shed with two attendants.

The scale of the elections brings unforeseen problems. With a low literacy rate in the villages, voters make their choice by stamping a party symbol on the ballot. BJP, for example, appears as a spreading lotus flower. To vote for Congress, you ink the symbol of an open palm. Yet for practical reasons, election officials have limited the number of symbols to 128 - tiny line-drawings of everything from apples, to lanterns, to bangles, boats, pillows, combs, bananas, and computers. Still, last year 1,033 candidates bid for the allotted 128 symbols - most of which had already been claimed, creating a symbolic crisis in many constituencies.

Nor are public events here complete without a whirl at the stars. The heavenly kind. India is a land of the fey: Horoscopes hang heavy on astrological charts. Planetary relations, numerology, gravitational fields, calendars, and constellations are calculated prior to speeches and big events. Nostradamus's apocalyptics are ever more popular. A leading BJP consultant "consults" him. The key question is always: Is this or that date "auspicious"? Auspicion is something greatly to be desired.

Jayalalitha, one of the most powerful female politicians in South India, always starts elections with a lucky or "auspicious" number. Last election, for example, it was "five." This led to numerous reorderings of priority where the number five could resonate fully. Jayalalitha gave all her allies five seats. One chief ally was required to change his first name from Vai to Vaiko - to make it five letters. And so on.

Back on earth, the campaigning ended yesterday. By Indian law, petitioning stops 48 hours prior to voting. Most exit polls, which were first banned from publication then allowed by the Indian Supreme Court, suggest the BJP will win. The question for either major party will be how strong a coalition it can form. A weak coalition could mean another election in the near future.

These elections have been characterized as the first "presidential" style race in Indian history - with the personas of Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee far outweighing party loyalty and issues. It also has witnessed the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia's daughter, Indira Gandhi's granddaughter, and a possible heir to the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty. The final results, auspicious or not, are expected to be announced Oct. 7. "

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