A year of campaigning shows how India's democracy stays alive

It was unseasonal weather for Kashmir during the recent political campaign - cold and wet. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, under a rainbow-colored umbrella, often campaigned in mud that was ankle deep. The state's chief minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, stumped 500 kilometers a day and encountered similar conditions.

To their credit, 70 percent of Kashmir's voters ultimately went to the polls to choose between the two dynastic houses - that of the grand dame of the Hindu dynasty, which has ruled democratic India for nearly all of its independent years, and that of the house of the Muslim lion, Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir.

To be sure, it was a battle between political elites, feudal in many ways. Yet it was testament to the ongoing, awesome experiment in mass democracy in a nation of 720 million, seven-tenths of whose people remain illiterate today.

Despite the gloom of New Delhi's parlor politicians and the apocalyptic scenarios for India that they preach, democracy appears to be alive and well in the nation. Its participants are in no way restricted to the nation's wealthy elite.

Indeed, politics is rather like the cinema to which millions of Indians flock to escape the heat, poverty, and suffering which is often their lot. They sit in tea houses from Kashmir's snow-capped, Himalayan peaks, to the hot, dusty stretches of Andhra Pradesh, chortling with delight over the shenanigans of their politicians, over who has profited and who has been upset. Caste remains a quintessential part of the political fabric. Many politicians are accepted as venal and corrupt.

Of the communist experiment for more egalitarian treatment in the teeming state of West Bengal, a wizened old man told the Daily Telegraph of Calcutta, ''Babu, only a few people stole everything in the previous rule. Now everybody steals, is that not better?'' Democracy is, after all, a division of the spoils, he seems to be saying.

Having been promised much by their politicians, and often given little, many Indians have become disaffected with the political process. They thus look toward personality, flamboyance, and style. Long forgotten are the days of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharal Nehru, and the independence leaders who married dreams with reform.

''India needs an emperor or empress,'' said the prestigious Times of India in 1981. ''People crave an individual to whom they can entrust their destiny.''

Thus, Kashmir's Chief Minister Abdullah, as he crisscrossed villages in his Indian version of a Volkswagen mini-bus, sat atop the roof of his wagon, cross-legged, guru-style, exhorting the voters to give him an overwhelming mandate. When lightning dramatically struck across the darkened sky, voters immediately whispered: ''The lion is nearby.'' The Lion of Kashmir was Dr. Abdullah's father who dominated the state's politics from independence until his death last year.

Some 2,500 kilometers south of Kashmir, in Andhra Pradesh, the voters solidly rebuked Mrs. Gandhi earlier this year in favor of a pudgy, charismatic movie star who had played the role of Hindu gods so often that many seemed to believe he had become one.

In far-off, sun baked villages of this disparate, contradictory land, poor village women have recited to me in chapter and verse the most recent, titillating tales of the often sordid struggle between the prime minister and her impetuous daughter-in-law.

And, in scenes right out of the movie ''Gandhi,'' an Indian politician is today walking 2,500 miles to, in his words, ''return political power to the people.'' But long before Chandra Shekar began his ''Padayatra'' along the country's dusty roads, followed by supporters in white, homespun cloth, the people of India were well aware of their power. They have exercised it vigorously for many years.

To be sure, the house of Nehru has always been a political power in the land. Jawaharal Nehru ruled the country for its first 17 independent years. His daughter, in a democracy with a dynasty and autocracy at its base, has now entered her 15th year in power. Yet the voters, in 1977, reacted so strongly to her constraints on democracy during the two years of ''emergency rule'' that they turned her out of office. Unhappily for proponents of a multi-party democracy, the Janata coalition, after assuming power's reins in New Delhi, disintegrated into a faction-riddled government of quarreling, petulent, old men.

It would be wrong to say that the preeminence of personality in Indian politics carries no risks. But India is a resilient, nonrevolutionary land. And its 362 million voters are not unmoved by the seriousness of their task.

Electioneering may be like going to the movies on Sunday afternoon. There are fireworks and graffiti; tiny children dwarfed by garlands of flowers twice their size; coconuts smashed at the feet of candidates to ward off the evil eye.

In a storefront shop in the dank old city of Kashmir's capital Srinagar, an old man puffed on a water pipe. Arabic music from an FM radio pierced the air. ''We have a lot of warts,'' he said of Indian society, ''but one thing that can never be said about India is that democracy is dead.''

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