Inky fingers point to India's unique democracy

The rickety old table is strewn with nuts that have come clattering down from the tree above. It is also piled up with small scraps of paper weighted down with stones and half bricks.

Voters scramble off bicycles (sometimes three per cycle), overladen pedicabs, creaking bullock carts, and motor scooters. They check their names and addresses at the table.

A stone or brick is lifted, one of those slips of paper is handed to them, and they head for the polling booth -- a nearby school building where they have the democratic luxury of choosing from a host of candidates.

This is Indian democracy at work. And this is one of thousands of polling stations which during the past week saw a flood of voters thrust Indira Gandhi back into the nation's leadership.

In this one particular New Delhi seat, won by the respected Indian Foregin Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the voters can select from 25 candidates. Four of them represent four major political parties. The rest are independents.

Because so many Indians are illiterate the candidate identifies himself to the voter through an easily recognizable symbol. S. I. Mohi, for instance, chose a rose. K. K. Toofan opted for a locomotive engine. Other symbols to catch the candidates' fancy: a sunshade, an elephant, a bicycle, leaves, and a farmer with a scythe.

After the voter has cast has his ballot by signature or thumb imprint, a round the spot of an ink is blobed on the moon of the nail on his forefinger. "Have you voted today?" you ask. "See," replies the proud voter, pointing to his inky finger.

The ritual of millions of Indians going to the polls to exercise their democratic rights as voters never fails to impress Westerners.

As many as 300 million of the 650 million Indians are desperately poor. Two out of every three are illiterate. Yet the level of political sophistication in this gentle, passive, nonaligned country is remarkable.

An illiterate streetsweeper's remark that "if Mrs. Gandhi doesn't behave herself again, we'll throw her out again" is typical. She is conscious that her vote makes an impact on the democratice process.

Equally remarkable is that India, unlike the Soviet Union or China, achieved its independence in 1947 without revolution.

Today it still has the distinction of having Asia's freest press, though some wonder whether Mrs. Gandhi, who is already talking of how she has been maligned by the press, won't crack down again as she did during her state of emergency.

Two overriding factors -- the extended- family system rooted in conservative village life, and religion -- seem to account for India's ability to stay democratic in the face of almost impossible odds.

The extended family cements Indian society by the interdependence of its individual members or their particular caste. It is India's social security system. what the family or caste might not demand of its people, the Hindu religion will. (Some 83 percent of India is Hindu.)

Hindu religion requires that every guest in every home be treated, as one Indian put it, as "though he were God himself arriving."

In India religion counts for more than ideology. Compared to 20 centuries of conservative village and religious tradition, communism is a rude upstart.

Yet it is possible that Western enthusiasm for Indian democracy is naive and sentimental -- too bedezzled by the spectacle of so many millions of people going to the polls on election day when they live day-to-day lives of grinding poverty and severe hardship.

On European diplomat suggests, "I don't think Indians care two figs for democracy. They wouldn't want to lose it, but they do care about where the next meal is coming from."

M. B. Lal, assistant editor of the New Delhi newspaper, the Statesman, says that when he sees India, he sees two countries: one India, which is better off and accounts for some 20 to 30 percent of the population, and another India representing the remaining 70 percent.

The other, poorer India, he says, includes "the real destitutes. This is the class which in my humble opinion is not affected by democracy."

The people in this second India, he claims, are subjected to physical intimidation and virtual feudal exploitation by a ruthless class of unscrupulous landlords and landowners "who have one brother in crime and the other in the legislature." They are no better than the old Chinese warlords, he says.

"This other India is as much exploited today as it was during the days of the maharajahs or the British raj. A few economic crumbs may have fallen their way, but basically the ratio between the colonizer [first India] and the colonized [ second India] has stayed the same.

"If you ask the colonized how they like their democracy, they will say, 'What democracy?'"

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