On Friday morning, Sant Raj, an itinerant farmhand, set out from the small concrete house he shares with his wife and 7-year-old son, hoping to find a bit of work. But farm jobs are scarce in the dry season that follows the winter harvest. So by midday, Raj had given up the search, flopping by the side of the road in the shade of a small tree.
In a small but telling way, Raj's frustrated quest helps explain how the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a stunning and unexpected loss to the secular opposition alliance led by the Congress party in parliamentary elections that ended this week.
Challenging the government's campaign theme of "India Shining," a catchphrase for the booming economy, Congress and its allies accused Vajpayee's coalition of pursuing harsh economic reforms at the expense of the poor. It was a message that resonated with Raj, 29, who said he voted for the BJP in parliamentary elections four years ago but switched his allegiance to Congress after the governing coalition failed to deliver on promises of jobs and development.
"There is no difference," Raj said. "I'm where I started. I labored to eat then, and I labor to eat now."
In part because of last year's generous monsoon, a critical factor in an economy still dominated by agriculture, as well as a surge in the outsourcing of service jobs from the United States and other developed countries, Vajpayee's government in the past year has presided over one of the world's hottest economies, with an annual growth rate estimated at 8 percent by the World Bank.
But the monsoon was a temporary phenomenon, and economists say growth in the service sector masks high unemployment linked to the dismantling of public-sector industries that began with economic liberalization in 1991. Officially, the jobless rate is 8 percent.
Even defenders of the government's economic reforms acknowledge that the benefits have been distributed unevenly, fueling resentment among those who have grown weary of politicians' promises of better times ahead.
"The vote is not against reform," said N. Srinivasan, the director general-designate of the Confederation of Indian Industry. "What's happening is there is an impatience about reform benefits reaching all strata of society, and perhaps that is where we need a midcourse correction."
A number of analysts have interpreted the election outcome as an expression of resentment from Bharat, a Hindi word that translates literally as India but in colloquial use means village India, or rural India, where most of the country's billion-plus people still live. But Shekhar Gupta, the editor of the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi, challenged that explanation in a front-page editorial Friday.
"If it was so simple, how come the greatest beneficiaries of feel-good economics, in South Bombay and New Delhi . . . have voted exactly the same way as the debt-strangled farmer in Vijayawada, the jobless graduate in Hazaribagh?" he wrote. "As reform pulls more Indians above the poverty line, they are moving the bar of their expectations higher."
In part because of geography, the clash between expectations and reality is especially stark in this village.
Home to about 300 families, Aklimpur is six miles from the booming New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, a high-tech hub of sleek office towers, air-conditioned malls and multiplex movie theaters. As Indian villages go, this one is not especially poor. The homes are simple but solidly built, with electricity and hand pumps that provide water two hours a day. A few have cable television. The streets are paved with bricks.
In parliamentary elections four years ago, voters in the village -- as in the district -- lined up solidly behind the BJP candidate, who unseated the Congress party incumbent. But promised improvements failed to materialize, villagers said. The government built a clinic in a neighboring town, then neglected to staff it with a doctor or nurse. And for most people, the economic promise of Gurgaon -- of India Shining -- remains as distant as a mirage.
"Mostly it's propaganda," said Mangat Ram Vashisht, 62, the head of the village council, rousing himself from the rope cot where he had been napping in the stultifying afternoon heat. "Many don't even know what India Shining is. It only shines for those who have money. Nothing comes the poor man's way."
Many people here earn their living by farming. Some, like Vashisht, own their land, but others aren't so lucky. Raj, the farmhand, said he got by on whatever jobs he could find and counted himself lucky if he earned $1.50 for eight hours of work. In the long stretches between jobs, the family survives on the money they make by selling milk from their single buffalo, which brings in about 80 cents per day.
"Congress has always spoken for the poor," said Raj, explaining why he switched his vote this time. In addition, he said, he was offended by the BJP's relentless charges that the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, was unfit to lead India because she was born in Italy. Gandhi is the widow of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, and the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1984. Indira Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was prime minister from 1947 to 1964.
"I did not like the fact that they were calling her a foreigner," he said. "She's the daughter-in-law of this country."
While some villagers have taken menial jobs in Gurgaon, higher-paying positions -- as at call centers that perform back-office tasks for foreign clients -- are generally out of reach because they require college degrees and fluency in English.
Radha Bharadwaji, the wife of a retired paramilitary soldier who estimates her age at between 40 and 44, said she voted for Congress because she thinks the party will help find a government job for her 18-year-old son, who just completed high school.
"My husband says we've always eaten Congress bread and we'll continue to eat Congress bread," said Bharadwaji, a cheerful woman with a gold stud in her nose and enameled red bangles on her wrist.
Ravinder Vashisht, a neighbor, sounded a rare note of support for the BJP. The son of a high-level government clerk, he is pursuing a master's degree in mathematics at a nearby state university and also takes English lessons. Last summer he worked at a call center in Gurgaon, managing an employee car service.
"Vajpayee brought foreign companies to India," said Vashisht, 21, who wants to teach math or start his own taxi company. "New technologies. People can talk on their laptops, anywhere, anytime. The things that India couldn't do for the last 20 years, it's suddenly doing."
But others remain skeptical. "We don't think India is shining -- it's hogwash," said Kuldeep Raghav, who runs a small computer training institute on the second floor of a grubby office building in a neighboring town. Raghav, 25, said that in the last several years, his business has dropped off sharply because he could not make good on assurances that those who enrolled in his classes would find work.
"People have realized that even after doing this they're not getting jobs, so they're losing interest," he said. "All the jobs demand college graduates."
Such disappointments appear to have played a role in the outcome of the local parliamentary contest in the latest round of elections, which started on April 20 and stretched over three weeks before results were announced on Thursday. After a hard-fought campaign, the race was won by the Congress Party candidate who had been unseated in the last election.
"This village wanted change," said Mangat Vashisht, the village council leader. "They all felt we had given the BJP a chance."