Indians Roll Eyes at an Election

A political crisis last month is forcing early elections next year.

Had India's bickering politicians spared a thought for math teacher N.T. Tiwari in this drab, rural town, they might have spared him and millions of folk like him the pain of a general election three years before it's due.

Instead, New Delhi's leaders failed to reconcile their differences, sending the world's most populous democracy to the polls for the second time in as many years.

Mr. Tiwari, who has two young children and earns about $40 a month, will vote on election day early next year. But he's not happy about it: Every time an election is held, extra government spending increases prices, he feels. Then, those elected do not uphold their pledges to help poor rural residents like himself.

"We don't need new elections before five years," says Mr. Tiwari, winning approving nods from passersby here in India's largest state, Madhya Pradesh. "We don't need this expense. It won't help the people. It will only harm us."

Whether Tiwari is correct or not, many Indians blame elections for increasing the prices of basic goods. Studies show that elections in India hurt the economy. It is projected that the massive election effort will cost the government about $200 million, nearly as much as this year's health budget. On top of that, parties will spend some $250 million on their campaigns. That's big money in a country where per capita income is just $350.

But monetary cost is only one of voters' gripes in what promises to be India's most unpopular election, held over several weeks in February and March. To many, the vote was entirely avoidable, and, what's worse, it is likely to produce another hung parliament with no clear majority and a coalition government. Many Indians say that politicians have failed to put the country's needs - a slowing economy, rising violence between social castes, and poverty - above petty differences and ambitions for power.

The crisis that led to the elections started last week when the once-mighty Congress Party withdrew support from Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's coalition. No party mustered enough support to create a majority.

A sense of gloom has prevailed in the country since the political crisis erupted last month. The Hindustan Times, a leading New Delhi daily newspaper, lamented in an editorial last Friday: "If only our political parties had shown a little more maturity and a little less irresponsibility in thinking of the country and the people than about themselves."

The Congress Party pulled the plug on the seven-month-old government after a judicial inquiry into the 1991 assassination of former Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The inquiry linked a party in Prime Minister Gujral's coalition to Sri Lankan guerrillas, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been accused of killing Mr Gandhi. The political party, the DMZ, belongs to the same minority ethnic group as the guerrillas.

Congress had veto power over the United Front coalition because its 138 seats gave it a majority in the 545-seat parliament. It's not the first time that Congress has taken a decision that has undermined the ruling coalition. Earlier this year, Congress leader Sitaram Kesri withdrew support from then Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Mr. Gujral replaced Mr. Gowda to end the impasse.

But Congress, which has ruled India for all but five of its 50 years of independence, was never comfortable playing the supporting role forced on it by a dismal showing in the 1996 election. However, judging by what ordinary Indians say, Congress's gamble could backfire.

Resentment of politicians runs deeper than ever, especially in rural communities such as here in Kawardha, where many residents say that living conditions haven't improved. Their expectations, and disillusionment, have been heightened by the spread of television: They've seen the other side of the tracks.

The problems of Kawardha reflect the problems of rural India, home to about three-quarters of India's 950 million people and 77 percent of its poor, according to the World Bank. Most of Kawardha's narrow streets are unpaved: Flooding on rainy days renders bike-riding. the main means of transport. almost impossible. By car, it takes four hours on a potholed road to cover 80 miles to the nearest city, Raipur.

The heavy showers on a chilly day don't keep several barefoot children from roaming the streets to beg for money in this town of 25,000. The much-touted free-market reforms that have opened India to foreign products and spurred faster economic growth have yet to reach Kawardha.

"I have heard of the reforms," says Prakash Jain in his spartan jewelry store. "But I don't think they've done anything for my business." Good years depend on a good harvest and farmers' desire to spend, he explains. This year, unseasonal rains are damaging rice crops.

The pledges for reforms started with Congress's socialist rhetoric after India won independence from Britain in 1947. But voters in Kawardha wonder how many governments will promise them economic and social progress - only to do nothing.

What's ironic is that despite Indians' sense of alienation, not a single person surveyed in Kawardha spoke of boycotting the vote. Turnout for Indian elections is usually much higher than in US presidential elections. Unlike in the United States, Indians' apathy lasts only until election day.

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