Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

World's Largest, Most Colorful Elections

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

World's Largest, Most Colorful Elections

Article excerpt

Wild and footloose pachyderms that stampede local voters. A desert border so remote that polling booths arrive by camel caravan. One jungle district so inaccessible that only three voters are registered. (Known as the "callous trio," they didn't show up last time.) A candidate for parliament who dispatches trained parrots to drop tiny leaflets with his party's insignia stamped on them.

Welcome, as it were, to India's national elections - or rather what is left of them. On Sunday the final votes are cast in what, if not the most orderly elections in the world, are certainly the largest and most colorful.

In the past month, India has cast its ballots for the fourth time in five years - a sometimes literally riotous affair, with nearly 5,000 candidates, 550 million voters, and 850,000 polling booths spread across a subcontinent that includes the 35 Andaman and Nicobar islands sprinkled over 600 square miles.

Actually, this election - a face-off between the secular Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - has been alternately grim, banal, and ignored. News tracks what can be called the downside: widespread voter fraud. Scandals. Low turnout. The ugliest rhetoric Indians can remember. Election eve drunken bashes designed to keep voters happy and "voting right."

The killing of several candidates - and one near Bombay who was charged in mid-campaign with murder.

Yet in India, that isn't the whole story. The 50-plus-year-old democracy is simply rife with funny, quirky, charming, and just plain unusual vignettes that could match any candid-camera home- bloopers script in the United States. There is the magician in Calcutta who blindfolded himself in a car pasted up with campaign posters and tried to drive through the city. There's that chief minister in Uttar Pradesh whose helicopter pilots couldn't find the right town and landed red-faced in a village in the wrong state.

Of course, there are plenty of good elephant tales. Those wild tuskers in Meghalaya who stampede voters were countered this year by locals wielding cymbals and drums, and fortified by tame elephants who know how to "calm down" their ancestral pachyderm friends who come out of the hills hungry in late summer. A local candidate may have said it best however: "Elephants have strong senses and can distinguish between good and evil. So they will not harm my voters." (Obviously, he's been accepting pach money.)

Not to be, um, forgotten, is the "victim" elephant in Uttar Pradesh. Pushpakali is a government "employee" at a national park who gives rides to tourists. Having just given birth to a tiny trunked calf, she was to be transferred to the local zoo. Yet Pushpakali's maternal transfer was postponed due to a government "code of conduct" rule that disallows employees to be shifted during national elections. …

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