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Thursday, September 16, 1999 Published at 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK

World: South Asia

A campaign without content

After three elections in four years, voters have election fatigue

By Vijay Rana of the BBC Hindi service

Watching the world's largest democracy in action is a great experience.

[ image: More than 600 million are voting]
More than 600 million are voting
More than 600 million Indians are thronging to approximately 77,000 polling stations, using more than 7,000 tons of paper for ballot papers.

In a society where affluence and poverty intermingle with little obvious bad feeling, the elections provide a brief opportunity for social equality.

In a metropolis like Bombay, it is common to find a business executive standing next to his slum-dwelling neighbour waiting to exercise their democratic right.

Buying influence

But in the cities, businessmen generously subscribe to the coffers of friendly politicians and in the villages, politicians profusely shower gifts such as saris, shawls, cooking gas connections and home-made alcohol upon voters.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
If a bottle is not enough to win the ballot, than recourse to the bullet is not ruled out.

In Bihar, where election rigging is mastered like one of the martial arts, more than a thousand fake election booths were seized from district officials - but so far no one has been punished.

In UP, India's most populous state, politicians promote caste and communal rivalries to consolidate their vote banks.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, major communities have in recent years thrown up their own political parties.

Caste instead of development

This year the election is being fought via recently emerged 24-hour TV news channels.

Yet nobody, neither the TV journalists nor the politicians, are debating the serious issues.

India's infrastructure is tottering under the weight of its growing population, yet nobody is talking about population control.

And as caste loyalties harden, some of the politicians quietly argue that more people in your caste means more votes.

Talking about development is the sole concern of foreign-funded, English-speaking and, in many cases, politically-affiliated NGOs who oppose everything from atomic power to thermal power plants and even hydroelectric projects.

Therefore, the politicians have spared themselves from talking about development.

The result is Bihar.

Half a century after independence and with billions of rupees spent on non-existent flood control plans, the region is still reeling under heavy floods.

The result is Gujarat, where village women have to walk many miles to have a bucket of water.

[ image: Atal Behari Vajpayee: Talking about victory in Kashmir]
Atal Behari Vajpayee: Talking about victory in Kashmir
In 1985, a political novice, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, showed unprecedented honesty by admitting that only 14% of funds destined for rural development reached the villages and the rest of it is pocketed by corrupt politicians and officials.

Corruption has attained astronomical heights since then.

Campaign of insults

So, what are they shouting about in those mammoth election meetings?

They are trading insults, calling each other traitors.

[ image: Sonia Gandhi: Blaming government over Kargil]
Sonia Gandhi: Blaming government over Kargil
The ruling BJP leadership is talking about destroying Pakistani infiltrators and the opposition Congress is blaming the government for neglecting national security.

More important than food, water, and health care are the emotional issues of class and cultural identity.

This identity is then transformed into community power.

And iIf you can exploit castes and communities emotionally, you do not need to convince individual voters.

Casting a spell, promoting a personality cult or even creating confusion among the poor and illiterate is the name of the game.

No solutions offered

That is why Sonia Gandhi has chosen to fight her election from Bellary.

In this most backward area of Karnataka, the female literacy is just 38% and the child mortality rate is 73 per thousand.

But people here are still unable to caste aside the memories of Sonia Gandhi's charismatic mother-in-law Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984.

The villagers say that like Indira, Sonia is our amma (mother) too, but as one heads towards Bellary town, better-educated voters begin to ask why their region is so backward in a state which meant to be India's Silicon Valley.

Neither has the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose speeches largely focus on the Kargil fighting, come up with any prescriptions for India's intractable problems of illiteracy, malnutrition, poverty and pollution.

After three elections in four years, the people have election fatigue.

Yet the one thing they do want to see is a government that can last its full five-year term.

In the first two phases, the voter turnout has been slightly lower than before - if that trend continues, in the end they may not even get that.

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