World's largest, most colorful elections

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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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.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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