Spirits high at Indian polls Process is joy to voters at 11th general election


LUCKHAM, India -- As the daughter of tea pickers who have worked for generations in the green hillsides around this village in southern India, Bhageshwari went to the polls every election day with her parents.

Yesterday, at age 20, on a day when India went to the polls at the start of its 11th general election since independence, the young woman was old enough for the first time to vote herself. The election will continue across India with two more voting days, May 2 and 7, and with results expected about May 10.

Bhageshwari walked a mile to a polling place in the old fieldstone schoolhouse she attended as a child. She was nervous, holding the hand of a friend as they lined up to vote with men and women who share with them the $1-a-day toil of picking tea.

But she knew exactly what to do when the polling officer dabbed her middle finger with unwashable blue ink, handed her a long white ballot paper and a stamp with a freshly-inked arrow on its base and motioned her toward a voting booth fashioned from a piece of cardboard tacked atop two stacked school benches.

"I just wanted this," she said a few moments later, holding her palm upward, fingers together. "What I wanted was the hand."

For two decades, the hand has been the election symbol chosen by the Congress Party, which has governed India for 44 of the nearly 49 years since independence in 1947.

It is still the nostalgic choice of many in an era when the party's domination of Indian politics has been badly shaken by corruption, infighting and the rise of other parties that have tapped into frustrations borne of caste differences, Hindu-Muslim frictions and rising regional loyalties.

In this election, the Congress is fighting an uphill battle to hang onto power. Pre-election polls suggested that it could get as little as 30 percent of the vote among the 590 million eligible voters.

But there was no edge to election day -- no shrillness born of old rivalries, nothing visible but good fellowship.

What permeated the mood was the pleasure of taking part in a basic democratic rite, the business of appointing and dismissing governments, which has survived the disappointments Indians have endured in the past half-century.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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