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In India, a Grass-Roots Shift

New Parties Compete in Election as Mumbai Attacks Spur Greater Political Engagement

Mona Shah, an eye surgeon-turned-politician, is among the ordinary citizens running in India's month-long election, which continues Tuesday in Mumbai. Video by Raymond Thibodeaux
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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.

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"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."

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