Middle-Class Movement Meets Political Machines in Indian Election Run-up

ACORN International Voting Rights

06-voters-list-india-600Bengaluru  In the one and one-half years since I last visited Bengaluru, or Bangalore as it is still known in the West, the changes were visible from the time I hit the expressway.  The new airport, 40 kilometers from the city center is no longer as new, but for the first time the ride was not an on-and-off experience of navigating a construction zone, but a smooth sailing of sorts by Indian standards all the way in.  Perhaps more startling though was that with the new expressway, construction had moved from horizontal to vertical, as we sped past one huge luxury apartment and housing block underway after another with giant billboards advertising the prices everywhere for pre-sale.  Dust and honking horns had been replaced by a land rush it seemed as the merging middle class looked to move on up to the big time.

            With an election beginning in mid-April on a month long polling process to accommodate 750 million eligible voters in the “world’s largest democracy,” as India never tires billing itself, voters are treated in their numerous daily newspapers to a continuous shuffle of party lists in final preparation for voting short weeks away.   Observers were watching with early interest the emergence of what is called the Common Man Party as a potential spoiler to the more traditionally dominant parties, the governing Congress Party and the right, conservative party, the BJP, which many are now favoring to regain control of government behind Narendra Modi, the controversial, development oriented governor of the state of Gujurat.  The left and regional parties are involved as well in endless attempts to create coalitions to threaten the primary parties and maintain their pockets of strength in both Parliament and local areas.

            The Common Man Party has attracted a lot of attention with its adoption of a platform to stop corruption, not allow parliamentarians to be shielded for criminal cases, and advocacy of transparency, better education, childcare, and other middle class issues.  Many of its candidates are new to political life.  For example an investigative journalist is running in Delhi.  A 30-year veteran of children rights campaigns is running in Bengaluru.  Having won with a candidate for governor in Delhi who resigned in less than 2 months in office in protest of his inability to implement anti-corruption measures against major party opposition there, they have been widely watched as new “kids on the block.

            It caught my eye that they were hoping to overcome the financial and organizational lead of other parties by using the secret and effective weapon of going door-to-door and propelling their efforts with volunteers to offset their more meager financial resources.  This is almost an American-style effort targeting their middle class base.

            The results will be worth watching as they emerge in May, but it seems almost certain from talking to ACORN India’s organizers on the ground working among lower income families that the “reformist” effort will fall seriously short, despite their enthusiasm.  This is still a very poor country and seeing a well-known Bollywood actor plead on TV for the electorate not to vote simply for whoever paid them the most for their ballot, is perhaps more telling than anything else in the election run-up that I’ve seen so far.