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Rural India Humbles Vajpayee

By Edward Luce

14 May, 2004
Financial Times [UK]

The world's largest democracy on Thursday delivered one of the
biggest electoral shocks in Indian history. Almost everybody in
India, most notably Atal Behari Vajpayee, its outgoing prime minister
- who brought the elections forward by six months to capitalise on
booming economic growth - failed to detect the warnings.

Most of India's pollsters forecast either a narrow victory for the
BJP-led multi-party coalition or a hung parliament tilted in Mr
Vajpayee's favour. Even the exit polls by New Delhi Television,
consistently the least inaccurate of forecasters throughout the
election, predicted the ruling coalition would only fall short by 20
to 40 seats.

In the event, the BJP-led coalition fell more than 80 seats short of
the half way mark of 272.

How could everybody be so wrong? "If you look at how journalists and
even pollsters operate, they go to the small towns and think they've
landed in the real India," said Mala Singh, editor of Seminar
magazine in Delhi, one of the few people to predict the outcome. "But
even the smallest, most out-of-the-way town, is a long way from the
villages where most of India lives."

Yesterday, India's impoverished villages - and large swathes of its
cities, where urban slum dwellers also came out in droves - gave
educated and metropolitan India a reminder of the country's vibrant
democratic undercurrents.

The verdict, which has put India's ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty back
in the driving seat two decades after its last electoral victory, is
likely to have profound effects.

"The first priority of the new government and of any government in
India must be to tackle rural poverty and backward agriculture," said
Manmohan Singh, a Congress leader seen by some as a possible
consensus prime minister if, as seems decreasingly likely, Congress
allies object to Sonia Gandhi's leadership. "This is the inescapable
lesson of the election."

With 149 seats, Congress will dominate the new coalition. But the
outcome is not a ringing endorsement. Yesterday the Congress-led
government of the southern state of Karnataka - of which Bangalore,
the booming software city, is capital - was swept out of power by the
opposition BJP in an assembly election.

Most Congress members of parliament from Kerala, another southern
state also ruled by Congress, were yesterday defeated by their main
state-level opponents in the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

India's voters are dismissing governments wherever they find them.
"Congress should be aware of the fact that the Indian voters have not
voted for anybody - they are rejecting everything in sight," said
Sundeep Waslekar, an analyst. "This is a cry of impatience for
corrupt and self-serving politicians to finally start delivering the

In a recent survey, Mr Waslekar estimated that more than 80 per cent
of India's 1.05bn people lived in the "bullock cart economy" -
without even the means to afford a bicycle. Another 15 per cent lived
in the "two-wheeler" economy. They could afford scooters and
televisions. And only two per cent - about 25m people - inhabited the
"business class" economy, those who can afford to fly and to dine in

"The BJP's whole election campaign of 'India Shining' was targeted at
the booming urban elites," said Dilip Cherian, head of
PerfectRelations, an agency that worked for Congress. "We chose to
ignore it altogether and disseminate low-key material in 48 rural
areas that we had previously identified as important." Mr Cherian
said the BJP outspent Congress by a multiple of five with an
estimated $100m campaign budget.

But much of the BJP's glitzy advertising either failed to reach
inhabitants of the bullock cart economy, or if it did, simply
galvanised their rebellion in the privacy of the polling booth.

"Today - for the first and last time - I am grateful so much of India
is illiterate," said a prominent social activist who did not want her
name published. "It was the literate middle classes that fell victim
to the BJP's propaganda. And it is the poor who have corrected their

But there is another lesson that many are drawing. In its manifesto,
Congress described the contest as one between a party that saw India
as a pluralist and modern nation and the BJP that stood for "the
forces of obscurantism and bigotry".

In the BJP's campaign, leaders such as Mr Vajpayee and L.K. Advani,
the hardline deputy prime minister, played down the BJP's Hindu
nationalist ideology. Both men were photographed wearing Muslim
headgear and talked frequently of Hindu-Muslim unity. Muslim voters,
almost 14 per cent of India's electorate, are disproportionately poor
and illiterate. But electoral analysts said they had voted in a
consistently pragmatic way. "Wherever the BJP candidate looked like
winning, Muslims voted tactically for the strongest opponent," said
Yogendra Yadav, a leading analyst. "They were voting for their own

Courtesy/Harsh Kapoor/SACW