Election Time in the World’s Largest Democracy

Election Time in the World’s Largest Democracy

SOURCE: Slate, May 14, 2004

Day 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


From: Akash Kapur
Subject: An Unabashedly Capitalist India Goes to the Polls
Posted Monday, May 10, 2004, at 4:40 PM ET

Sunday, May 9, 2004—I wake up and pull the curtains and see that the clouds have lifted. It’s been raining all over South India for a week—an unseasonable, torrential downpour that has flooded the coast and brought down power lines—and now, at last, the skies are blue again.

I’m in Cochin, in the state of Kerala, and tomorrow is the last day of India’s marathon national elections, which have been staggered over three weeks. The clear skies should help boost turnout—and that’s a good thing, because this last round is critical. Approximately 215 million voters are eligible to go to the polls in 12 states and four union territories. Their preferences are likely to determine the shape of the next government.

That’s something of a surprise. Back in February, when the elections were announced, few expected this last day to matter much. Opinion polls had the ruling National Democratic Alliance, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, headed for a landslide victory. The economy was red hot (it grew at an annual rate of 10.4 percent last quarter); peace with Pakistan seemed genuinely on track; and the BJP’s leader, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was by far the most popular politician in the nation. To top it all, the Indian cricket team won a resounding victory against its arch-rival Pakistan just before the polls opened. Conventional wisdom had it that the country (and, by extension, the BJP) was basking in what the newspapers called a “feelgood factor.” India, in the words of a ubiquitous ad campaign unleashed by the government, was “shining.”

At some point in the weeks leading up to the polls, however, the winds began to change. Maybe the BJP overreached with its negative and highly personal campaign against the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress Party and widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (who was assassinated in 1991). Or maybe it was the Congress’ portrayal of the BJP as overly concerned with the shining cities at the expense of the countryside, where 75 percent of the population lives and where desperate farmers are said to be committing suicide in record numbers. Either way, by April 20, the first day of voting, the polls were tightening, and the exit polls that have accompanied each round of voting have since shown a far closer race than expected. (It’s worth mentioning that exit polls have a somewhat dubious track record in India; the final results won’t be known until May 13.)

The uncertainty has left the nation on edge—and the stock markets, which had been anticipating another five years of the BJP’s market-friendly policies, down several hundred points. No one really thinks the BJP, which is expected to remain the largest party, will outright lose to the Congress. But the nightmare scenario—at least for the markets—is that the elections will throw up a hung parliament, with an unstable and short-lived coalition government that is unable to make tough decisions.

It’s a sign of the times that the nation’s chief concern is economic prosperity—not religious tensions, not regional separatism, and not India’s troubled relations with its neighbors. I’ve been traveling around this week, and what I’ve seen has convinced me that India has shed the austere garments of Nehruvian socialism it wore for the first 40 years of independence. India is today an unabashedly capitalist country.

Two days ago I was in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, and the epicenter of its booming technology industry. When I was a child, Bangalore was a sleepy, leafy town, a place my family visited for the cool weather. But today the roads are choked with traffic and lined with glass towers, many bearing the insignia of American software companies. There is a palpable sense of opportunity in the air. Young people believe they could be millionaires, and they’re determined to build the next Infosys or Wipro. The optimism and giddiness remind me a little of America in 1998.

I was in Bangalore and am now in Cochin on a hunt for real estate. A friend is interested in building a hotel, and I’m traveling around scouting for properties. Every broker I meet tells me the same story: I’m about six months too late. In Bangalore, one broker told me, property prices have risen by 150 percent in the last year. In Cochin, a tourist favorite, everyone is buying up properties to build hotels. There’s little land left—and what land there is comes at astronomical prices. Even the church, it seems, is getting a piece of the action. One broker in Bangalore, a Christian, muttered that the “bastard bishops” were letting shopping mall developers take 99-year leases on church properties.

It’s not just the church that’s sacrificing religion at the altar of mammon. The BJP, too, has been quick to shed its usual religious campaign themes for the promise of economic development. There’s been hardly any mention of “Hindutva,” the BJP’s brand of Hindu cultural nationalism (or chauvinism, in a less generous interpretation). Instead, the party has adopted a slogan of “bijlisadakpani“: electricity, roads, water. Vote for us, BJP leaders promise, and we’ll make India an economic superpower. They like to cite a recent Goldman Sachs report that predicts India will be the world’s third-largest economy (behind China and the United States) by 2050.

The Congress’ accusations of urban bias notwithstanding, such promises don’t just appeal to urban technology professionals. Late in the afternoon, I catch a flight from Cochin to Chennai, the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which also goes to the polls tomorrow. The driver who picks me up is by no stretch of the imagination a techie. Yet when I ask him who he’s voting for, he says the BJP. (Actually, he says “Vajpayee,” which is an indication that the prime minister is far more popular than his party.)

It’s the first time he’s voted BJP, the driver tells me, and when I ask him why, his answer is an uncanny echo of the government’s own slogan. “They’ve made it easy to get a telephone,” he says. “And they’ve built great roads. I’m a driver. Roads are important to me.”

The party’s leaders will no doubt spend a sleepless night hoping that it’s not just drivers who care about roads.


From: Akash Kapur
Subject: The Process Is More Important Than the Outcome
Updated Tuesday, May 11, 2004, at 4:45 PM ET

Monday, May 10, 2004—My friend Gaspard calls to tell me he’s heading to the polling booth, and I ask if I can come along. I jump on my motorcycle and head toward Nellitope, a neighborhood in the South Indian town of Pondicherry.

The streets are quiet, free of the racing buses and weaving motorcycles that usually make this a life-threatening journey. The police presence is somewhat heavier than usual, and the walls are plastered with election posters. Other than that, it looks like a holiday. Everyone’s been given the day off to vote, and they’re dressed in their Sunday finery—the men in clean white shirts, the women in shimmering, gold-bordered saris.

People are clustered around improvised polling stations. You can see the lines snaking around movie theaters, government buildings, schools, and sometimes outside under the shade of a tree. Every booth has a group of representatives from the major parties. They’re supposed to be monitoring the voting, but, seated comfortably in their reclining chairs, they don’t look overly concerned about fraud or ballot rigging.

Today’s vote will settle the election, and I wrote yesterday that the nightmare scenario was a hung parliament—a situation in which no party is able to muster sufficient votes to form a stable government. But the friends I’m meeting today have a different nightmare. Gaspard and Parthasarathy are communists, and for them the worst possible outcome is one in which the BJP comes back to power.

Like their former comrades around the world, communists in India have been forced to shed much of their Marxist baggage over the last decade or so. They still talk about workers’ rights and capitalist exploitation; when they’ve had enough to drink, they sometimes even admit that they’re hoping for a revolution. But today Enemy No. 1, as Gaspard tells me when I pick him up outside the shuttered shop fronts of Pondicherry’s market street, is the “communal forces”—by which he means the BJP and the religious passions it has inflamed and ridden to power.

The most famous—or infamous—instance of the BJP’s “communal” inclinations occurred in 1992, when the party, then a marginal force, incited the destruction of a mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya. (Many Hindus believe that the mosque was built on the birthplace of the god Rama and want a Hindu temple to stand there instead.) The ensuing religious riots were the most violent since India’s independence in 1947, when the nation was partitioned in two. Thousands were killed and many more left homeless. But for the BJP, the entire episode was a political bonanza: In 1996, it assumed power in New Delhi for the first time, largely on the strength of the misadventure in Ayodhya.

Since then, the BJP has been trying to tone down its fundamentalist image. The decision to shelve its religious themes in favor of economic ones in this campaign is part of that strategy. For many Indians, though, the bitter taste of Ayodhya is impossible to wash away. Gaspard, for example, tells me that he’ll never trust the BJP and that it was the destruction of the mosque that convinced him to become a communist in the first place.

“Until Babri Masjid,” he says, referring to the mosque that was destroyed, “I was very religious, very pious. I didn’t understand the world. I just went from church to college, college to church. But when I saw that mosque come down, and when I saw how many thousands of people were killed in the name of religion, I decided to become a communist. I gave up my religion.”

Gaspard’s doubts about the BJP are by no means unusual. The carnage in 2002 in Gujarat, where more than 1,000 people were killed in religious riots while the state BJP government largely stood by, has only heightened distrust of the party’s association with fundamentalists. Many voters, though, aren’t quite as clear in their voting convictions. They may dislike the BJP’s religious agenda, but they also admire its economic performance, and they believe that the prime minister is a moderate who will steer his party away from fundamentalist elements. In a way, much of the Indian electorate is voting for the BJP with their fingers crossed.

It’s a real dilemma—a tussle between the promise of economic prosperity and the threat of growing intolerance and illiberalism—and it’s one I’ve struggled with myself. But for me the clinching factor is the fear I’ve seen recently in men like Abdul, the Muslim newspaper vendor I’ve been buying from for years and whose shop I stop by before heading to the polls with Gaspard.

Abdul tells me he’s relieved by the downward trend in the BJP’s poll numbers. He says the imams in his mosque have been speaking of the dangers of a BJP government, and they’ve been reminding the local Muslim community about Ayodhya and Gujarat (he adds that they’ve also been speaking about Iraq and George W. Bush). They’ve warned Muslims to stick together and vote as a group. “And they’ve also told us to pray five times a day to keep strong,” Abdul says.

I ask Abdul if that means he’ll be voting against the BJP. His answer is ambiguous; he doesn’t seem to want to tell me, and I leave it at that.

On the motorcycle, I tell Gaspard about my conversation with Abdul. He gets worked up. “They’re the No. 1 danger facing this country,” he says of the BJP. He says he and his fellow communists need to do more to get rid of the current government.

The beauty of democracy, of course, is that India’s communists don’t need to resort to armed revolution to effect a change of power. We get to Gaspard’s polling booth and he queues up—calmly and peacefully.

The poll station is in a government building, set in a courtyard. The courtyard is filled with trees and, save for the cawing of crows, it’s remarkably quiet. I sit on a root under a tree and watch the voters stand in line. No one is speaking, no one is jostling to the front of the queue. I’m impressed by how orderly it all is and by how seriously everyone seems to take their civic responsibility. When you think about it—when you consider that hundreds of millions voters have cast their votes, largely peacefully, over the past three weeks—the scene in this poll booth really is a moving sight. Whether or not the BJP comes back to power, the process is more significant than the outcome.


From: Akash Kapur
Subject: India May Be Shining, But Not in the Countryside
Posted Wednesday, May 12, 2004, at 2:38 PM ET

Tuesday, May 11, 2004—Is India really “shining”? In the weeks leading to the election, the government unveiled a $20 million national ad campaign that touted its achievements and sold the idea of a nation poised at the brink of economic superpowerhood. The campaign may not have been altogether successful. The government drew flak for using public money to fund what was widely perceived as party (i.e., BJP) propaganda. Also, the opposition Congress has done a surprisingly good job of countering the campaign with accusations of urban bias: India, the Congress says, is shining only in the cities, and the BJP’s ads show that it’s alienated from the true concerns of voters. In retrospect, the “India Shining” campaign may come to be the BJP’s “Mission Accomplished” moment—an impressive bit of media management that ultimately boomeranged on its authors.

But political posturing notwithstanding, the numbers do seem to give some credence to the BJP’s claims. India’s stock market was one of the best performers last year, its foreign exchange reserves now top $100 billion, and the country’s economy is projected to grow at 8 percent this year. Less tangibly, but just as important, is the sense of optimism I mentioned in my first dispatch. Spend a few days watching your reflection in the glass towers of Bangalore, Hyderabad, or any other Indian metropolis, and it’s hard not to feel the shine.

The trouble is that only a fraction of the Indian people actually lives in these glittering cities. About three-quarters of the population still lives in the countryside. Moreover, rural areas tend to vote in greater numbers than urban ones. So, in Indian politics, successful candidates pander to the countryside. Farmers get subsidized electricity for their water pumps; fishermen get cheap diesel for their motorboats. Trickle-down economics isn’t very popular in India, and the BJP may come to pay a heavy price for its obsession with software, biotech, and telecoms.

To get a sense of what’s going on in the countryside, I pay a visit today to the South Indian village of Chetichavady. The village is in a region I know fairly well: Three years ago, I spent seven months around here conducting fieldwork (on development-related issues) for my Ph.D. I know that life in this area is tough: The agricultural economy revolves around seasonal (and highly unreliable) weather patterns, the soil is arid, and government services like health and education are in short supply. The lives of the men and women in these villages are about as unshiny as lives can get.

Things are a little better than usual today, though, because of the recent rains. There was another storm last night, and today the farmers are out in their fields tending to their crops and digging irrigation channels. The open-air village water tanks are replenished, too, which means the women don’t have to walk miles to get cooking water or to do the laundry. I also notice the new road—a smooth tar surface that’s a welcome replacement of the potholed dirt track I rode last time I was here.

Chetichavady is about 25 miles off the main road. When I get to the village around noon, I find a group of 10 men sitting in the shade at the edge of a line of thatched huts. I stop and introduce myself; they eye me suspiciously. We don’t discuss politics at first; that would be too sensitive. Instead, we talk about development. I ask about the new road, and they say life’s gotten easier as a result of it. They also tell me that the electricity supply has become more stable. Then we talk about the weather, and they say they’re grateful for the rains; the borewells have run dry in the village, and the fields were parched before the downpour.

That’s not bad, I think. If the BJP’s running on a slogan of “bijli, sadak, pani” (electricity, roads, water), it seems to have scored a hat trick here. But when I steer the conversation toward politics, asking the men how they feel about the government, I get a sense of why the BJP’s campaign has not been as successful as anticipated.

“The government says India’s shining, but that’s a lie,” one man, Devaraja, says. “Do we look like we’re shining here?”

Another man, Ganesan, also speaks. “We have no jobs, no work. We’re just sitting around, wasting our time.”

Surely, I say, life has improved since I was last here. A bus now runs regularly along the road, and it takes their children (for free) to the nearest school. Twelve homes (out of 34) have a television set, and one person in the village even has a cell phone. And haven’t they just told me that the electricity supply is more stable?

“All that is true,” Devaraja, who is clearly the leader of this group, continues. “But the problem is we don’t have any jobs.”

He says that the men in the village work in the fields for about three months out of the year; the rest of the time, they’re mostly idle. Work as a construction laborer is sometimes available in the nearest town, and it pays 100 rupees (about $2) a day. But the bus alone costs 30 rupees, and the broker who finds them the work takes another 20 rupees. Their meal and tea expenses come to at least another 10 rupees. That leaves them under a dollar—and the work is very sporadic.

The men complain for a while, and then I gradually turn the talk to politics. I tell them I’m not asking who they voted for, but I want to know: When they go to cast their vote, do they keep all these complaints in mind?

“Of course we do,” Devaraja answers, and several of the other men nod their heads in agreement.

I’m wondering if I just happen to have stumbled on an anti-BJP village, when another man, who’s been silent so far, steps forward. He says he’s a supporter of the AIDMK, the local party that’s in an electoral alliance with the BJP. All the others here, he says, are from the opposing camp. “But even I kept our situation in mind when I voted yesterday,” he adds.

His admission of party affiliation is unusual, and the man steps back, somewhat sheepish. There’s an awkward silence. Then the talk turns again to agriculture. I’m sweating, and I complain that it’s hot. The men say I should have been here before the rains, and they repeat how happy they are for the water. But they don’t seem to give the government much credit for the weather.


From: Akash Kapur
Subject: The Trickle-Down Theory of Economic Empowerment
Posted Thursday, May 13, 2004, at 3:06 PM ET

Wednesday, May 12, 2004—The first results are in, and things don’t look good for the BJP. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, has received a drubbing in regional polls for the state assembly: Out of 294 seats, Naidu’s party won only 47, down from 180 last time. The significance of this is not just that Naidu is a major BJP ally and that his loss of popularity reduced the party’s chances of forming a government in New Delhi. Naidu’s defeat is also telling because in recent years he has emerged as the leading political cheerleader of the nation’s software and IT industries. His rout at the polls is a damning verdict on the government’s “India Shining” campaign.

When Naidu took over as chief minister nine years ago, Andhra Pradesh was something of an economic backwater, mired in political corruption and infighting. Naidu brought a new, more accountable style of governance, and he emphasized economic development through modern industries like IT and biotech. Often called the “CEO of Andhra Pradesh,” he instituted a number of economic reforms and hobnobbed with global corporate jetsetters at Davos.

The results have been impressive. Naidu charmed the World Bank into giving his state one of the largest loans ever made to India, and Andhra Pradesh is today a global poster child for economic reforms. The capital, Hyderabad (dubbed Cyberabad), is home to global giants like Google, Microsoft, and Motorola. All along, though, there have been rumblings about Naidu’s neglect of the countryside—in the press, he was sometimes referred to as the chief minister of Hyderabad. Now the countryside has spoken—and, like the farmers I visited yesterday, rural voters have made it clear that their concerns aren’t being addressed by the Indian New Economy.

It’s important (and not just for political calculations) to take into account those concerns. But it’s also important to acknowledge the dramatic improvements ushered in by political leaders like Naidu. The software and IT industries have widened the arc of possibility for Indians throughout the country; they’ve raised living standards and opened up new, well-paying jobs for thousands of young people.

All this is true not just of techies living in Bangalore or Hyderabad. A little-noticed but increasingly clear trend is the trickling down of the IT revolution to what Indians call “second-tier” cities—the hundreds of smaller population centers that are being transformed from dusty market towns to more prosperous and self-confident engines of economic growth. Slowly but definitely, the totems of a new India—the glass paneled buildings, the Internet cafes, the cellphone towers—are coming up in towns and cities that until recently had been bypassed by the software boom.

Pondicherry, near which I’ve been based this week, is one such town. It has a population of a little over 200,000 and an economy that revolves around small-scale industry, handicrafts, and tourism. It’s hardly on the map of the global software industry, and you’re not going to see Microsoft or Google set up shop here anytime soon. But even here, seven hours by road from Bangalore and an overnight journey from Hyderabad, the rumblings of India’s transformation are being felt. And over the past few months, I’ve had something of a ringside seat.

A friend in New York wrote to me a few weeks ago saying his company was looking to outsource some programming work; he asked if I could help. It’s not the first time I’ve been in this position. While the IBMs and HPs and other corporate giants know how to play the offshoring game, small and medium-sized companies in the West have had a harder time figuring out how to outsource. Several businessmen I’ve met in America over the last year or so have told me they’d like to move some of their work to India, but they don’t know where to begin.

So I set my New York friend up with a local person, a young entrepreneur named Arnab who has a small tech consulting company and with whom I’ve worked in the past. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing what in the industry is known as “project management” (basically, keeping an eye on things to make sure deadlines are met and the communication channels stay open). Today, shortly after reading about Naidu’s defeat in the morning papers, I get together with Arnab to discuss our progress.

We meet in a coffee shop in an air-conditioned shopping mall that is itself a symbol of this town’s new prosperity and consumerism. We go over some logistical issues: the challenges of replicating his client’s development environment, the difficulties of getting the American code to work on Arnab’s local server, and the need for better communication. We draw up a timeline and commit to regular instant-messenger meetings.

Then, after our business is over, I ask Arnab why he’s here in Pondicherry, rather than in a larger city. He says he was working in Bangalore but had to return to Pondicherry because his parents got sick. I ask him if he feels he gave up a lot by moving here, and he tells me that initially work was hard to come by. No one was interested in outsourcing to a small town, and no one really had faith in the ability of small-town programmers to get the job done.

But now things have picked up. Companies in Bangalore can’t handle all the work they’re being offered, and companies in the West are increasingly looking for new (and cheaper) options. There’s a dearth of affordable programming talent, and it’s entrepreneurs like Arnab—and towns like Pondicherry—that are the beneficiaries. Arnab tells me he’s been working on several offshoring projects, mostly for U.S. companies. He’s ambitious and determined to build his company, and he’s optimistic that it’ll happen. “Recently,” he says, “things have been really good.”

It’s that optimism—that sense of possibility about which I’ve been writing all week—that’s in many ways the most important legacy of political leaders like Naidu. Gurcharan Das, who wrote a fascinating book, India Unbound, on the new India, has a phrase he likes to use: Politically, he says, India achieved its independence in 1947, but it wasn’t until the ’90s, with the advent of the software boom and the accompanying rise in national self-confidence, that Indian “minds became decolonized.”

It’s clear from the election that the benefits of this decolonization have yet to be felt in the countryside. But the wave of transformation unleashed by India’s knowledge industries is starting to flow outside the metropolises. It’s sweeping into the smaller towns, and it’s only a matter of time before it floods the countryside, changing the lives of farmers and fishermen and illiterate laborers. And when that happens, Indian voters will know who to thank. I wouldn’t count Chandrababu Naidu out just yet.


From: Akash Kapur
Subject: The BJP’s Agenda May Be Down, but Don’t Count the Party Out
Posted Friday, May 14, 2004, at 3:05 PM ET

It’s being hailed as the biggest upset in Indian electoral history. Defying all the polls and talking heads, the Congress, headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, has won. And it hasn’t just squeaked by. It has effectively swamped the BJP. The party that ruled India virtually uninterrupted for the first 40 years of independence will soon be back in power after a drought of eight years.

I wrote on Monday that no one, not even those who thought the BJP might be headed for rough waters, imagined the Congress would emerge as the largest party. The final numbers are now in, and it turns out that everyone was wrong: The Congress has 145 seats in parliament and the BJP 138. With its allies, the Congress has 219 seats and the BJP 186. Add the 62 seats won by the Communists, who didn’t campaign as Congress allies but have pledged their support, and the Congress crosses the halfway mark in the 545-seat parliament. At least two other parties are likely to join the Congress in government, pushing its tally to over 300.

Clearly, something went terribly wrong for the BJP. Just a few weeks ago, party strategists were predicting that they would win over 300 seats on their own, which would have allowed the BJP to form a government without allies. Now Vajpayee has resigned, and shell-shocked members of his party are preparing to sit on the opposition benches. Pramod Mahajan, a key BJP election strategist and the person most likely to emerge as the fall guy for this disaster, told the media, “I am half heartbroken and half stunned.”

The post-mortems are just beginning, but already much of the analysis is interpreting the results as a decisive rejection of the BJP’s economic liberalism and Hindu nationalist ideology. That’s too simple a reading. India’s electorate is diverse and complicated, and regional issues play a major role in voters’ choices. Moreover, every Indian election is to a significant extent determined by the “anti-incumbency factor”: Life in much of the country is poor and miserable, and miserable voters tend to lash out at whoever happens to be in power. Much of the Indian intelligentsia and many liberals I know have been walking around with ecstatic expressions on their faces. They figure the BJP’s brand of politics is gone for good. I wouldn’t gloat. The BJP’s agenda may be down, but it’s certainly not out.

Consider, for example, what the elections have to say about Hindu nationalism. It’s certainly true that the 2002 riots in Gujarat turned many voters decisively against the BJP. I’ve talked to several people, former fence-sitters, who have told me that the deaths in those ethnic riots opened their eyes to the dangers ofHindutva. But another interpretation of the results is that the BJP lost precisely because it underplayed the Hindu theme. As the results were trickling in, a spokesperson for the RSS, a right-wing Hindu organization with links to the BJP, complained to the media that the government had failed to provide voters with an “emotive issue.” His point was that the BJP’s attempt to campaign on good governance and development instead of religion failed to inspire the base. In this reading, Vajpayee’s determination to steer the party toward moderation—his peace efforts with Pakistan and his attempt to reach out (or “pander,” as his critics would have it) to Muslim voters—is what ultimately sank the party. So the lesson at least some BJP stalwarts are likely to take away is that religion needs to be given more prominence next time.

On the economy, too, the results are less clear than they may first appear. Although the stock market tanked on Friday, the Congress’ economic program is in most important ways identical to the BJP’s. In fact, it was the Congress itself that in 1991 began freeing the nation’s semi-socialist economy, and Manmohan Singh, the man most likely to be the new finance minister, is revered by corporate India as the father of economic liberalization. The only real area of difference between the Congress and BJP concerns the divestment of state-owned companies: Along with the Communists (whose presence in the government is sending shivers down the spines of Indian businessmen), the Congress would privatize only those companies that are not making a profit. That policy will affect only a handful of companies; it may send the wrong message, but it shouldn’t have much effect on the economy in general.

What the results do say about the economy is that voters (particularly those in rural areas) don’t believe India is “shining.” As Devaraja, in Chetichavady, asked me on Wednesday: “The government says India’s shining, but that’s a lie. Do we look like we’re shining here?” Ultimately, rural India’s vote is less a rejection of the BJP’s economic program than it is of the party’s perceived high-handedness and removal from ordinary concerns. Mock us, poor voters appear to be saying, and we’ll fight back with the only weapon we have.

The BJP’s high-handedness has shown up in other ways during the campaign. Just before the polls opened, Vajpayee asked his Congress opponent, an old friend, to stand down and let him run unopposed. No one knows quite what Vajpayee had in mind, but to some it came across as a sense of entitlement. The prime minister’s apparent demanding of respect was particularly incongruous given that BJP members were at the same time launching virulent personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi—accusing her, for instance, of being unfit to find work even as a driver or clerk.

In fact, the “Sonia issue”—the constant harping on her foreign origins—appears to have fizzled, if not outright backfired. No one I’ve spoken with seems to care much about her Italian roots. After all, they say, she’s lived in this country for over 35 years, speaks Hindi (even if it’s somewhat stilted), and, perhaps most important, lost her mother-in-law and husband in the service of the nation. If people do have a concern about her, it tends to be her lack of experience and the very idea of dynastic rule in a nation that increasingly likes to think of itself as meritocratic.

For now, at least, those concerns have clearly been put aside. The voters have spoken loud and eloquently, and a party that was being written off as headed toward terminal decline just a few months ago will govern again. Until the 1990s, Indian voters, who had repeatedly brought the Congress back to power, were often accused of being predictable and unsophisticated. This election, among the most exciting and exhilarating I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, should put such charges to rest once and for all.

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