A high-tech affair at India's polls

The ruling BJP is expected to win the elections, which begin Tuesday and involve some 675 million voters.

By , Staff writer of The 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.

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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."

There is certainly much at stake in this election. India's economy is booming, achieving a 10.8 percent growth rate this past quarter - higher than China's. Both of the major parties take credit for this economic boom. The Congress Party says the boom is the result of more than a decade of economic reforms initiated in the late 1980s by their late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The BJP, which has implemented its own liberalization reforms in the past six years, says the boom is theirs.

Also at stake is India's warming relationship with Pakistan, its longtime nuclear rival. Just two years ago, India and Pakistan had put a combined one million soldiers on their long border and pledged to go to war "once and for all." Now, the two countries are talking of peace again, symbolized by two cricket series, which culminated last week in India's triumph.

Booming economy, friendlier Pakistanis, victorious cricketers: Clearly the BJP, with 204 out of 543 seats in the lower, more powerful house of Parliament, has the advantage. But observers say that Congress and its ragtag band of coalition parties may also stand to gain seats in Parliament, as voters abandon smaller parties in the hopes of making their votes count. "On the whole, the two major alliances [Congress and BJP] will do better, at the expense of the smaller parties," says Dr. Sheth.

Like any tightly competitive environment with hundreds of choices, such as the cutthroat world of breakfast cereals, these two coalitions are busy cutting into each other's base of support by offering gimmicks, gadgets, and glamour.

Both Congress and the BJP have turned to India's movie industry, nicknamed Bollywood, to turn out the vote. Dozens of former and current movie stars have signed up to hit the campaign trail or run for office. Star power works, sometimes too well. Bombay comic actor and Congress candidate Govinda Ahuja recently halted all future outdoor events because of fears of stampede.

This was not an idle concern. A free sari give-away event, sponsored last week by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's longtime campaign manager in the northern city of Lucknow, sparked a stampede that left 22 women dead.

But while much of the campaign is along old-style lines, such as Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's month-long cross-country "rath yatra" tour of countless cities and villages, the 2004 campaign will be more remembered as the year of the cellphone. The BJP has sent out millions of automated voice messages to mobile phone subscribers, taped by the prime minister himself: "This is Atal Bihari Vajpayee," the prime minister drones. "Let us build a confident nation."

Congress, for its part, has favored the more youth-oriented Short-Message System, or SMS. "Some only feel good," reads the Congress SMS, deriding the BJP's economic "feel good" campaign. "Some have good feelings for you. Vote for Congress."

What is most interesting in this campaign is what is not being talked about: religion. The BJP, which came to power promising to promote Hindu culture - after its supporters tore down a mosque in Ayodhya in 1991 - has sidelined its many Hindu zealots to emphasize its economic policies. Congress, which has long seen itself as the defender of secular values and minority groups, has stuck to a me-too approach, promising to open India to the global economy.

This emphasis on economic matters, instead of emotionally charged religious issues of identity, may be a sign that Indian voters are tired of the violent politics of the past. Just last spring, the torching of a train in the state of Gujarat set off a series of riots that killed more than 1,000 Indians, mostly Muslims. Gujarat's fiery chief minister, Narendra Modi, was roundly criticized for doing little to stop the Hindu rioters in his state.

Mr. Vajpayee, for one, wants to move away from the BJP's social policy of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, says Sheth. "There's no denying that there are elements in the BJP who are avowed anti-Muslims, just as you have many Muslims and secularists in Congress who see anything that is Hinduist as threatening. Democracy sometimes brings in the majority's values in symbolism, but it should remain symbolism and not a repression of minority's rights."

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