Friday, June 12, 2009

In Elections, Rural India Rules:With 65% of Voters, Heartland Again Plays Pivotal Role
In Elections, Rural India Rules
With 65% of Voters, Heartland Again Plays Pivotal Role

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service.
Thursday, April 16, 2009

KURUL, India -- Just six months ago, Ranganath Tiwari, 38, was a pea farmer in debt, eking out a living for his wife and six children in this dusty village of half-finished brick and bamboo-roofed shelters.

But in the run-up to India's month-long elections -- which start Thursday -- Tiwari said he feels more like royalty, wooed by the ruling Congress party with a farm loan waiver program, saving him the $400 he borrowed to buy two dairy cows.

"The farmer is like an emperor this election," said Tiwari, dressed in a traditional wraparound lungi, with a scarf tied around his forehead to shade him from the baking midday sun. "We just hope they remember us when election season is over."

When Indian voters in 124 constituencies go to the polls Thursday, they will be kicking off the world's largest democratic exercise. The election will be held in five phases, ending May 13, with up to 714 million voters casting ballots at 828,000 polling stations. Votes will be counted May 16, and a new government will be formed by June.

The election will determine who leads the world's second most populous country, and experts predict that the mood of rural India -- known in Hindi as Bharat -- will once again play a decisive role. Despite the presence of megacities such as Mumbai and New Delhi, India's vast heartland is home to about 65 percent of voters, according to registration data.

During the last general election, in 2004, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance's loss was attributed in part to its "India Shining" slogan, which was designed to highlight the country's fast-growing outsourcing hubs and its thriving urban technology corridors. But farmers such as Tiwari, here in the badlands of Bharat, were insulted by a campaign that they viewed as absurd. How could India be shining, they asked, if they still lived in villages without indoor plumbing?

"Shining India was bogus," Tiwari said, lounging on a rope cot outside a one-room rural outpost of the Congress party. Other farmers laughed and shooed away the flies. "What were they even talking about?" he said.

This year's election has centered on the economy, terrorism and development. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has charged that Congress and its leader -- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- are weak on fighting Islamist extremism, citing the November attacks in Mumbai. Congress counters that it is the only party that represents all Indians, including lower-caste Hindus and Muslims. It has focused its campaign on promising to spread the benefits of development.

Rural voters say they care about the basics: electricity, running water, schools and health services, which remain far from the reach of many hamlets across the country and here in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, with 190 million people and 80 seats in Parliament.

"How can we be a superpower if most of the country is still fetching well water and worried about feeding and getting decent health care for their children?" said Anup Srivastava, a researcher with the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, which is helping educate voters in the countryside about their rights. "Could America be a superpower if only New York and California were developed and Middle America could barely eat and didn't have 24-hour electricity? Unless we fix Bharat, 'India Shining' will be just a great marketing campaign for corporate Indian boosters."

This election season, Congress not only wooed Tiwari through his wallet but also flattered his faith. The party put up lights and cleaned up trash along the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river. It was a powerful gesture, because the BJP typically courts Hindus here. "It looked first-class," Tiwari said, beaming.

In addition, the government recently started an affordable train line to New Delhi called the Garib Rath, or "the poor's chariot," with formerly unheard-of luxuries -- such as air conditioning -- to court the "aam aadmi," or common man.

There are signs that economic conditions in areas outside cities, especially in the sprawling suburbs, have improved in the past five years.

On roads all across those areas, women in saris can be seen loading freshly baked bricks atop their heads to build houses and replace mud shelters. The country's first rural shopping mall recently opened in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and it does brisk sales on cellphones, tractors and television sets.

Still, the latest Global Hunger Index said the malnutrition level in Madhya Pradesh was comparable to those in Chad and Ethiopia. Some economists say that the spread of the mobile phone, along with the string of good monsoon rain seasons, has done more to improve rural development than government programs have. About 60 percent of India's workforce is still employed in agriculture; the majority are landless day laborers.

Although land-owning farmers such as Tiwari have benefited from loan waivers, landless farmers are still hustling to eat. About 42 percent of children younger than 5 are malnourished in India, compared with 7 percent in China, according to a recent report by the United Nations.

Past a highway lined with fields of wheat and 30 miles from Tiwari's village is the congested town of Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city. It is also a battleground this year, with undecided voters in the town as well as the outlying farms.

During the 2004 election, Congress won a prestigious Parliament seat here, toppling the BJP. Also competing for the Varanasi seat this year is a regional party run by the state's chief minister, Mayawati, the country's most famous Dalit, or untouchable. But even among Dalits, Mayawati and her party are controversial here. She is accused of corruption and a fondness for building expensive parks filled with statues of herself. For the Varanasi seat, her party has nominated an accused mafia don-turned-politician, Mukhtar Ansari, who is campaigning from jail about 200 miles away. Still, her party could be a factor in the national race, and it is anyone's guess who will win the local seat. But one thing is clear in Varanasi: Aspirations are rising, as is evident from the dozens of billboards that advertise "Call Center English and Corporate manners taught here."

That is in stark contrast to the scene just an hour's drive away. Up and down the crumbling roads, it is common to see young women hauling heavy jugs of water, their backs hunching under the weight.

Lalpi Devi, 32, who lives in a nearby Dalit village, sees the election as a simple affair.

"I will vote for whoever gives me water," she said, putting her plastic-bangled hand on her jutting hip, as a child tugged on her bright-blue sari. "Right now, we have 25 families using one well. We have to save water, drop by drop. I will vote for whoever gets us running water by April 16. I'm waiting."

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