India May Be Shining, But Not in the Countryside

Election Time in the World's Largest Democracy

India May Be Shining, But Not in the Countryside

Election Time in the World's Largest Democracy

India May Be Shining, But Not in the Countryside
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 12 2004 2:38 PM

Election Time in the World's Largest Democracy

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Wet fields after the rains
Wet fields after the rains

Tuesday, May 11, 2004—Is India really "shining"? In the weeks leading to the election, the government unveiled a $20 million national ad campaign that touted its achievements and sold the idea of a nation poised at the brink of economic superpowerhood. The campaign may not have been altogether successful. The government drew flak for using public money to fund what was widely perceived as party (i.e., BJP) propaganda. Also, the opposition Congress has done a surprisingly good job of countering the campaign with accusations of urban bias: India, the Congress says, is shining only in the cities, and the BJP's ads show that it's alienated from the true concerns of voters. In retrospect, the "India Shining" campaign may come to be the BJP's "Mission Accomplished" moment—an impressive bit of media management that ultimately boomeranged on its authors.

But political posturing notwithstanding, the numbers do seem to give some credence to the BJP's claims. India's stock market was one of the best performers last year, its foreign exchange reserves now top $100 billion, and the country's economy is projected to grow at 8 percent this year. Less tangibly, but just as important, is the sense of optimism I mentioned in my first dispatch. Spend a few days watching your reflection in the glass towers of Bangalore, Hyderabad, or any other Indian metropolis, and it's hard not to feel the shine.

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The trouble is that only a fraction of the Indian people actually lives in these glittering cities. About three-quarters of the population still lives in the countryside. Moreover, rural areas tend to vote in greater numbers than urban ones. So, in Indian politics, successful candidates pander to the countryside. Farmers get subsidized electricity for their water pumps; fishermen get cheap diesel for their motorboats. Trickle-down economics isn't very popular in India, and the BJP may come to pay a heavy price for its obsession with software, biotech, and telecoms.

The village well and the huts in Chetichavady
The village well and the huts in Chetichavady

To get a sense of what's going on in the countryside, I pay a visit today to the South Indian village of Chetichavady. The village is in a region I know fairly well: Three years ago, I spent seven months around here conducting fieldwork (on development-related issues) for my Ph.D. I know that life in this area is tough: The agricultural economy revolves around seasonal (and highly unreliable) weather patterns, the soil is arid, and government services like health and education are in short supply. The lives of the men and women in these villages are about as unshiny as lives can get.

Things are a little better than usual today, though, because of the recent rains. There was another storm last night, and today the farmers are out in their fields tending to their crops and digging irrigation channels. The open-air village water tanks are replenished, too, which means the women don't have to walk miles to get cooking water or to do the laundry. I also notice the new road—a smooth tar surface that's a welcome replacement of the potholed dirt track I rode last time I was here.

Village tanks replenished
Village tanks replenished

Chetichavady is about 25 miles off the main road. When I get to the village around noon, I find a group of 10 men sitting in the shade at the edge of a line of thatched huts. I stop and introduce myself; they eye me suspiciously. We don't discuss politics at first; that would be too sensitive. Instead, we talk about development. I ask about the new road, and they say life's gotten easier as a result of it. They also tell me that the electricity supply has become more stable. Then we talk about the weather, and they say they're grateful for the rains; the borewells have run dry in the village, and the fields were parched before the downpour.

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That's not bad, I think. If the BJP's running on a slogan of "bijli, sadak, pani"(electricity, roads, water), it seems to have scored a hat trick here. But when I steer the conversation toward politics, asking the men how they feel about the government, I get a sense of why the BJP's campaign has not been as successful as anticipated.

"The government says India's shining, but that's a lie," one man, Devaraja, says. "Do we look like we're shining here?"

Another man, Ganesan, also speaks. "We have no jobs, no work. We're just sitting around, wasting our time."

A local school
A local school

Surely, I say, life has improved since I was last here. A bus now runs regularly along the road, and it takes their children (for free) to the nearest school. Twelve homes (out of 34) have a television set, and one person in the village even has a cell phone. And haven't they just told me that the electricity supply is more stable?

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"All that is true," Devaraja, who is clearly the leader of this group, continues. "But the problem is we don't have any jobs."

He says that the men in the village work in the fields for about three months out of the year; the rest of the time, they're mostly idle. Work as a construction laborer is sometimes available in the nearest town, and it pays 100 rupees (about $2) a day. But the bus alone costs 30 rupees, and the broker who finds them the work takes another 20 rupees. Their meal and tea expenses come to at least another 10 rupees. That leaves them under a dollar—and the work is very sporadic.

The men complain for a while, and then I gradually turn the talk to politics. I tell them I'm not asking who they voted for, but I want to know: When they go to cast their vote, do they keep all these complaints in mind?

"Of course we do," Devaraja answers, and several of the other men nod their heads in agreement.

I'm wondering if I just happen to have stumbled on an anti-BJP village, when another man, who's been silent so far, steps forward. He says he's a supporter of the AIDMK, the local party that's in an electoral alliance with the BJP. All the others here, he says, are from the opposing camp. "But even I kept our situation in mind when I voted yesterday," he adds.

His admission of party affiliation is unusual, and the man steps back, somewhat sheepish. There's an awkward silence. Then the talk turns again to agriculture. I'm sweating, and I complain that it's hot. The men say I should have been here before the rains, and they repeat how happy they are for the water. But they don't seem to give the government much credit for the weather.

Akash Kapur has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the Economist, Harper's, and Wired, among other places.