Spirits high at Indian polls Democratic process gives pleasure, hope to voters in 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 backbreaking $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 outside 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. Only in pockets is it expected to do substantially better, and one of them is here in Kerala state, on India's southwest coast.

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

For the hundreds who lined up at the schoolhouse, and for many millions more across a band of states that voted yesterday, what seemed important was not so much which of the dozens of political parties was up or down, or which local candidate from among the 15,000 running across India was likely to win.

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

On election days, the burdens of poverty, corruption and a creaky economic system are put aside, and India celebrates. And the festive spirit seemed to carry a message of optimism.

At Luckham, the men, most of whom were wearing the wraparound plaid skirts that southern Indians call lungi, modestly dropped the hems to their ankles just before entering the polling place, then pulled them up again as soon as they stepped out.

"I do this for the country, because I believe that some day, if we choose good people, we will be rich," said Madaswamy, 60, a tea-picker who was among the first voters when the polls opened at 7 a.m.

An ethnic Tamil like most of the tea workers, he uses only one name. He said that he had voted in every election since 1957, shifting parties from time to time. "It is my duty to vote, like everybody else," he said. "More than that, I don't really know."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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