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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 May, 2004, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Bihar overlooked by 'Shining India'

Jill McGivering
BBC South Asia correspondent

Violence and political corruption are troubling India's general election, which is again highlighting the vast disparity between a poor underclass and a rich elite.

Lower caste Hindu voters protest at being prevented from voting

Praveen is a stout, cheerful woman, braving the chaos of cycle rickshaws and wobbling bicycles with a determined smile.

As megaphones blare, she stops one passer by after another, trying to persuade them to sign a petition.

It is election time - but her evangelical zeal is not for a particular party or candidate but for democracy itself.

Praveen and her colleagues are taking their lives in their hands, and not just in the traffic.

We are in Patna, capital of the state of Bihar, the notorious bad boy of Indian politics.

It has a reputation for violent and corrupt politicians, election fraud and an electorate that has largely abandoned hope.

Politicians have even been accused of fuelling the violence as a way of keeping caste loyalties strong
As part of an independent monitoring body, Praveen is trying to take the politicians to task.

The only other woman in sight is an emaciated beggar, cradling a sick child.

Scruffy youths hang about aimlessly, leaning on each other's shoulders, teeth stained red with betel nut.

Informed decision

In this election and for the first time, Praveen tells me, every candidate must declare key information.

Their wealth. Their debts. And, crucially here, lists of criminal charges against them.

So far, about one in five faces criminal proceedings. She wants the public - many of them illiterate - to make an informed decision.

But even she falters when I ask her if what happens in Bihar is really democracy.

Bihar is an example of India at its worst, a largely hidden shame
She throws her head back and laughs. Finally saying: "It's democracy gone wrong."

It is easy to understand why many here despair. Bihar is one of India's poorest states, desperate for development.

Its villages have few schools and clinics, and terrible roads.

It is also deeply scarred by decades of caste conflict, an endless cycle of attacks and counter-attacks between Hindu communities.

They define themselves by the social and religious categories they assume at birth.

Politicians have even been accused of fuelling the violence as a way of keeping caste loyalties strong.

The campaign talk does not address these burning issues.

Many here, who bother to vote, will do so unthinkingly along caste lines.

We drove out along pot-holed tracks to a small village, scene of one of the latest caste murders.

Mistaken identity

Chando, a scrawny woman in her 50s, crouched on her haunches in the darkness of a mud-walled one room home, thick with flies.

Villagers pressed round to listen. She could barely speak for weeping, rubbing the heel of her hands back and forth across her face.

Her brother-in-law, she said, was shot dead a few weeks ago by a gang of upper caste men. A case of mistaken identity.

He was the sole breadwinner for two families. Would she vote in the election? She shook her head. What was the point?

On voting day, we saw short queues of government workers at some polling stations - but also groups of young men with sticks hanging around in the street.

Man votes near Jaipur
All votes are being cast electronically
The riot police were out in force but by the end of the day reports were coming in of intimidation by gangs, election violence, even deaths.

The new electronic voting machines just introduced are designed to stop fraud. But they even cannot do much about an entrenched culture of lawlessness.

Bihar is an example of India at its worst, a largely hidden shame.

Its poverty is worlds away from the modern face of India, the plush new shopping centres of the capital, Delhi.

Here, under spotless glass and chrome, the affluent middle classes stroll arm in arm, enjoying snacks and soft drinks, browsing the latest fashions and hi-tech gadgets.

Security guards on the doors keep out undesirable elements.

'India is Shining'

The middle classes, much emphasised nowadays, are really a tiny elite.

One in three Indians still does not get enough to eat.

But those middles classes are high profile and mostly solid supporters of the ruling party, the BJP.

BJP president Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister AB Vajpayee
The BJP leadership is confident of a "comfortable majority"

The party's feel good slogan, "India is Shining" was written with them in mind.

I meet a young couple, a dentist and a psychiatrist, strolling with their three year old son.

"Voting is very important", the husband tells me, nodding sagely.

"It's our duty. Democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people."

I ask them if they think politicians get their priorities right when there's still so much poverty? They look bemused.

"But the basic issues are being addressed", they explain. "India is shining."

The husband pauses to think. "Perhaps we need to emphasise family planning more," he says at last, "because the poorer people are multiplying."

By now their own son is getting fractious, clamouring for attention.

It will be a long time before he gets a vote, I say. What changes would they like to see by then?

We would definitely like more improvements, more development, they say.

"And more shopping centres like this," exclaims the wife, laughing, before they stroll off.

It is almost certain the India their son inherits will still have democracy.

It will also have many more air-conditioned shopping centres in its big cities.

No doubt he will spend many happy hours there. But will he ever, I wonder, visit the struggling state of Bihar?

And if he does, what changes, if any, would he find?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 May, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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