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In India, a Grass-Roots Shift
New Parties Compete in Election as Mumbai Attacks Spur Greater Political Engagement

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 30, 2009

MUMBAI, April 29 -- Her sunglasses perched on her head, Mona Shah, an eye surgeon-turned-politician, raised her bullhorn as she weaved and ducked among the slippery nooks and narrow alleys of a slum in this mega-city. From a bright blue, one-room hovel, Sunita Chaldwadi, a 28-year-old mother of four, peered out.

"Are you fed up with the same old faces in Indian elections? The same old choices between thugs or thieves?" Shah called out with a hoarse voice on her final day of campaigning. Dozens of domestic servants, mechanics and laundrymen -- those who keep this metropolis of 14 million working -- climbed down from their rooftops, leaning on rickety iron ladders and flooding the cramped warrens for a glimpse of the candidate.

The appearance of ordinary citizens such as Shah in India's phased, month-long general election -- which continues with voting in Mumbai on Thursday -- is a subtle but seismic shift in a nation seemingly eager for change. The proliferation of independent candidates and dozens of new parties represents a grass-roots movement in which bankers, business leaders, socialites, artists and others sense increasing political opportunity in a country where power has often been wielded by dynasties.

The Mumbai attacks in November have energized India's youths and its typically aloof urban elite. After the siege, citizen groups and Bollywood stars helped register 50,000 people in ritzy South Mumbai. The attacks have also spurred many Indian professionals to step into the political arena, one in which nearly a fifth of the 5,500 candidates face criminal charges.

South Mumbai bore the brunt of the three-day assault, which left more than 170 people dead and unleashed public fury toward the leaders of India's two main parties -- Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- which were widely seen as ineffective in the face of such attacks. As a result, 19 candidates -- nearly three times as many as in the last general election, in 2004 -- are vying for South Mumbai's seat in India's Parliament.

"The Mumbai attacks were the last straw. For so long I was enjoying my life, working hard as an eye doctor," said Shah, 38, head of the newly formed Professionals Party of India. "But now I want to restore vision to my fellow Indians. I am sacrificing my career for my country. It feels good. It feels right." The political fallout from the November attacks was swift. The Congress party scrambled to reshuffle top leaders. India's home minister and the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, resigned.

The opposition BJP has campaigned hard across Mumbai and put up billboards showing rosy-cheeked children in backpacks going to school and the caption: "Are we safe?"

Still, with neither the BJP nor Congress likely to capture a majority of seats in the 543-member Parliament, they plan to stitch together alliances after results are declared in mid-May, analysts say. With so many independent candidates, political experts say that smaller parties might have a slim chance of forming a "third-front" government.

"The emergence of independent candidates and newer parties is a great expression of democracy, especially in South Mumbai," said Julio Francis Ribeiro, former police chief of Mumbai. "They have a significant role -- their votes will show that the people are disgruntled with both big parties."

In dozens of interviews, voters appeared divided on their choice of candidates, especially up and down the crowded streets where gunmen went on a rampage in November, taking hostages at two hotels and a Jewish center and shooting indiscriminately in the city's busiest railway station and the popular Leopold Cafe.

"I've given up hope. I won't vote," said Peer Pasha Sheik, a waiter whose brother was killed when the cafe was sprayed with gunfire. He now cares for his brother's five children, along with four of his own. "I'm not sure I have any faith left in the system."

Shah is running against Congress incumbent Milind Deora. "It's a trendy type of thing, a fad to fight an election now. At first, I was excited for these new candidates to be there. I generally believe they are nice people at heart," Deora said. "But now I worry that voters may be wasting their vote on them. I worry this will strengthen the right-wing parties."

The manifesto of Shah's party does not mince words about India's political class.

"Drunk with power, blinded by layer upon layer of bootlicking sycophants and immersed in a cocoon of lavish luxuries, they are reduced to uncouth, self-centered, megalomaniac despots," the party's Web site reads. "The unconstitutional 'VIPism' and the ugly and equally ridiculous 'security cover' that accompanies it, completes the picture of formally legitimizing the thick layer of insulation from the wretched, common Indian."

Campaigns such as Shah's appear to be gaining attention, especially in Mumbai's slums, where more than 70 percent of the city's residents live.

"I want to know her," said Chaldwadi, the mother of four, who had a frayed Indian flag made of paper taped to her doorway. Her neighborhood near Malabar Hill is sandwiched between some of the city's swankiest art deco high-rises, where many of the slum dwellers work as housemaids, cooks, drivers and mechanics. "Maybe it's time for me to give a vote to someone new."

Terrorism is not the only issue on the minds of Mumbai's residents as they go to the polls. South Mumbai, like much of India, is a place of deep class and caste divides. Homeless workers brush their teeth and wash on the side of roads, while wealthy women in silk saris and Louis Vuitton handbags rush to hair appointments and kitty parties, gossipy ladies-only get-togethers usually involving lavish spreads.

Many residents say they are concerned about the city's choked drains, especially during monsoons, when flooding can be lethal. In 2005, monsoon floods killed more than 400 people in Mumbai in one day. For Chaldwadi and other slum dwellers, among their biggest problems is the lack of bathrooms -- 55 for every 5,000 residents. Running water is limited to 30 minutes a day.

Veena Shanghvi, a wealthy housewife, came to Chaldwadi's neighborhood this week to campaign for Shah and was amazed by the grim conditions. "I am so ashamed. For so long, I was only enjoying my life," she said. "I didn't know people lived this way in Mumbai. At the very least, now I know."

Special correspondent Pragya Krishna contributed to this report.

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