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Rediff.com  » Election » The poll tales of a thirsty town

The poll tales of a thirsty town

Last updated on: April 17, 2009 23:55 IST
rediff.com's American reporter Matthew Schneeberger gets his first whiff of an Indian election.

A few hours outside Bangalore, just a few kilometres off the Golden Quadrilateral highway, in Karnataka's Chitradurga district, sits a small town called Shira.

As small towns go, Shira is rather nondescript. Indeed, it's almost indistinguishable from many identical-looking small towns before and after it, all of them humble, dusty and severely strapped for water.

Yet I will never forget Shira or her people. Because it is here, in Shira, that I am formally introduced to the wonders of The Great Indian Political Festival.

In America, during elections past, I'd interviewed prospective voters, attended rallies and covered press conferences. Coupled with my degree in political science, I'm an expert on participatory democracy. I've seen it all before. Or so I thought.

We arrive in Shira on Thursday afternoon, just as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate for the Chitradurga constituency, Janardhan Swamy, is scheduled to begin a road show. Though Chitradurga is traditionally a Congress territory, lately the BJP has made headway here. This year, the race is a four-way mash-up between the Congress, the BJP, the Janata Dal-Secular and the Janata Dal-United.

With no cricket or soccer on television, and school out for the summer, today's road show is big news in Shira. So they come, young and old, hundreds of them, to greet the candidate. Or, at the very least, to gawk and stare.

The enthusiasm matches that of a John Kerry rally I witnessed in 2004. But that was for the most powerful position on Earth and this is for the Member of Parliament seat of one rural, under-developed Karnataka constituency. Yet the comparison is an accurate one.

About 30% of the hundreds on hand are clearly below voting age, only kids. Obviously, they're not voting. But still they're here, dancing and shouting and singing alongside their elders.

Saffron and green scarves hang around almost everyone's neck. The children wear smart looking BJP visors. Some crazed young men, evidently intoxicated, chant slogans and beat their drums. The crowd answers their call, a perfect chorus. On the rooftops and balconies of buildings, citizens gather to watch the proceedings.

Finally, we spot the candidate, who's standing in the back of an ancient truck, waving to adulators below. By trade, Janardhan Swamy is a software engineer, recently returned from a plush Silicon Valley job in the US. He looks the part too, in his casual button down shirt, slacks and socks/chappals combination.

After a bit of finagling, we're allowed to clamber up inside the vehicle, alongside Swamy, smack dab in the epicentre of an authentic political rally.

Despite claims to the contrary, this experience proves that it's still very much possible to feel like a king in modern-day India. As we inch forward, the crowd too presses forward, all eyes permanently fixed on us. Ecstasy shows on the faces of those supporters who manage to touch Swamy's hand. Without fail, they shower effusive praise upon him, rambling and smiling and apologising, before being forcibly moved aside by party workers, so that the next well-wisher may come forward.

All the while, there are flowers being tossed at us and firecrackers bursting in front of us. As we pass by, people are doing puja at their doorsteps, waving incense in circles.

One man holds aloft his tiny baby daughter. The candidate, without missing a beat, blesses the child before returning to handshakes.

The atmosphere is an almost equal mixture of religion, entertainment and politics. Above all else, the road show feels like a party. I keep expressing my amazement at the charged atmosphere, and am told it used to be much more intense, but the Election Commission's restrictions have made things noticeably subdued.

Unfortunately, the truck stops, at the behest of party workers, and we're forced to disembark. Swamy, a first-time candidate, now surrounded by a great mass of humanity, seems uncomfortable as we wind through narrow gullies, trying to avoid slipping into drains and managing obstacles tossed in our path: Cow dung, uneven pavement, crumbling steps, puddles of unidentified liquid.

Soon, we reach our ultimate resting place, a tiny, hand-crafted dais. Swamy is ceremoniously placed in a throne-style chair and giant, heavy garlands are put around his neck.

Finally, the candidate takes the microphone. As one might expect from a software engineer, he's soft-spoken and seems nervous in front of the crowd. His voice wavers. He's holding a notecard covered in scribbled text and his hands shake badly as he speaks.

Since everything is happening in Kannada, I'm only able to discern that the key issue here is water shortage. Every time polls occur, the once forgotten small towns of Chitradurga are visited by netas, who promise to improve the water supply. When they fail to do so, as inevitably happens, they are tossed out and replaced by the next in line. My suspicion is confirmed by one of the few English-speaking attendees. Where the water will come from, he says, is the town's eternal question.

Finally, I'm made to sip some lime juice. The crowd cheers. And suddenly I'm face to face with the candidate.

Greeting me warmly, he says knowingly, "In the US, a certain standard of living and a certain state of development, is expected. That's not so in India. But the BJP wants to bring about this state of development. That's why we're here in Shira."

I ask why he gave up a lucrative career in the States, where he worked in Silicon Valley's famed IT industry. Swamy shrugs and says, "I love my country. I wanted to help."

"This constituency has a lot of potential," he continues. "Literacy is high, but haven't utilised our educated youth. We have many local resources, but they aren't being used properly. Above all else, we must industrialise Chitradurga, to create more jobs."

As I surveyed the bright-eyed, quick-tongued, yet shabbily dressed children, I was forced to concur.

But before we can converse further, party workers drag him to his feet and parade him down the main thoroughfare, the drums once again striking up their refrain.

As we leave, I think back to the lukewarm John Kerry rally I attended in 2004. "Those people wanted corporate tax reform and the right for homosexuals to marry," I think. "These people just want water." Suddenly, the enthusiasm begins to make sense.

I share my sentiment -- saying that the rally was the impressive and organic nature -- to a journalist standing to my right.

"Forget the noise and the slogans and flowers. That was all the party workers. This whole thing was clearly manufactured," he says sceptically. "You haven't seen anything yet."