India displays civic spirit – and cynicism – as election nears end

New Delhi and Kashmir voted Thursday in Round 4 of staggered national polls.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

India's national elections came to New Delhi today, so I strolled into a neighborhood polling station to take a look. A small detail blew me away: India's poll workers have printouts that include the photos of every voter in their precinct. Consider that India has 714 million registered voters heading into this national election.

How did they do that?

"There have been a lot of issues with bogus voting in India, so this is something that the election commission decided was worth doing," says Anil Bairwal, national coordinator for the Association for Democratic Reforms.

I told him that in the United States, photo ID requirements are regularly shot down over concerns that they would suppress turnout or disenfranchise those without driver's permits. But India's election commission still got 714 million people signed up with mugshots by sending crews across the country.

"They go with a camera and they just take your photograph for the records and put it in the list," Mr. Bairwal says. "It's a very long process."

The government also makes voting day a holiday. I found this out the hard way when I tried to meet a friend today at a restaurant. Stores and eateries had their metal gates pulled down. There's even a ban on selling alcohol.

Retail politics

While I marveled at the detailed technicalities, Indian voters seemed more in awe of America's heady political debates. Many contrasted this election's lack of issues and ideas to the recent presidential race in the United States, which Indians lauded as a real battle over the direction of the country.

"Politicians [in India] aren't grilled on what their policies are going to be," says Kaveri Gill, a government worker in New Delhi. "It's a question of the literacy levels in this country."

Indians also admire the concept of canvassing. S.L. Bhatnagar, an elderly volunteer manning a help table for the opposition BJP party, recounted a conversation he had with a friend and former chief minister some years back.

Him: "Why don't you go door to door to explain your agenda like I have observed in America?"

Chief Minister: "This is all stuff and nonsense."

Him: "Why?"

Chief Minister: "There's a huge resettlement camp near Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and they are solid votes. They are needy, and their price is maybe 10 rupees."

Don't vote? Then don't complain.

Several voters came out in spite believing that most politicians here buy their seats and then use them to make a return on their investment. Civic duty, they said. Others pointed out that if you don't vote, you can't complain.

"Every youth should vote because every day we see people saying hard words about politicians. But actually it depends on us, how we vote," says Monu Singh, a student in New Delhi.

In Kashmir, less civic enthusiasm

Kashmir also went to the polls Thursday. There, turnout has long been a barometer of local sentiment for remaining a part of India. Voter participation was abysmal, with many polling stations in Srinagar recording votes in the single digits, while some voting stations saw none at all.

The turnout was affected by an election boycott called by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), the main separatist alliance in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

"The Hurriyat Conference rejects the elections as a mere political ploy, intended to hoodwink the people of Kashmir," said APHC leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq. "You can't compare the election in Kashmir with the election in India. In Kashmir, it's held under the barrel of a gun."

A large crackdown by the police and Army has taken place in the months leading up to the election, with most major separatist leaders under house arrest, and large gatherings quickly broken up by police.

During Friday prayers last week, the government shut down the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Srinagar, which can accommodate up to 33,000 people. The mosque's closing led to a confrontation between protesters and the police that left at least five injured, including two police officers.

Gh. Rasool, a local from Srinagar who was praying at the Jama Masjid the day before elections, said he would never dream of voting, as "if we vote for the Indian government we are going through the Indian constitution and strengthening the occupation."

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