Politicians add brawn to India's campaign trail

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The Independent Online

New Delhi

One of the first trips that any Indian politician makes during his election campaign is to the nearest akhara, the gymnasium of wrestlers. There, from among the muscled and oiled youths grappling in thick mud, the politician will chose his campaign staff.

More crucial than speechwriters or spin doctors, the wrestler acts as the Indian politician's bodyguard and his bullying enforcer who gets out the vote through bribes, threats and free booze. Or, when all else fails, gangs of these wrestlers are hired to steal the ballot boxes on election day.

In this free-for-all general election, to be held next month, the service of these rent-a-goons is much in demand. The battle among the three main parties - the ruling Congress party, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the leftist coalition, the National Front - is expected to be closely fought and dirty.

All parties have been hit by last-minute defections, Congress the worst. The Congress party's leader, premier Narasimha Rao, 74, yesterday was left staggering after the resignation of two cabinet ministers - P Chidambaram of commerce, and M Arunachalam in charge of industry. Both men were vital to Mr Rao's campaign in the southern states, and Mr Chidambaram was also a leading architect behind the government's economic reforms.

The two ministers are from Tamil Nadu and were angered by Mr Rao's pact with the state's chief minister, a preening ex-film actress named Jayalalitha. Both are joining a breakaway party led by another Congressman, GK Moonapar, who described Ms Jayalalitha as "undemocratic, fascist and corrupt".

An opinion poll conducted by Outlook magazine showed that although Congress is expected to win most seats in the 545-member Lok Sabah, or lower house, Mr Rao's party will be flailing to reach a majority. Gains by the BJP and the leftist coalition are expected to reduce Congress's share to less than 200 parliamentary seats. If this forecast proves true, India faces the unsettling prospect of a hung parliament, or a coalition government patched together between one of the big three parties and the rowdy regional ones.

Like the gymnasium wrestler intent on grinding his opponent's face in the mud, the politicians have lost sight of any goal beyond their own personal victory. None of the parties is willing to confront urgent issues such as India's booming population or its poverty. With nearly 50 births every minute, India's population growth is the highest in the world. This has eroded the advances made by the Congress government's economic reforms; yearly income has dropped from $330 (pounds 215) in 1991 to $290 in 1993. Over 40 per cent of India's 920 million people live in poverty.

Ignored, too, in the electoral fray is the fact that India spends only $9 a year per person on education and one dollar on health. Health experts consider 65 per cent of all Indian children under the age of five to be malnourished.

Mr Rao is committed to liberalising India's economy. But his leftist and right-wing foes are trying to persuade voters that Mr Rao's reforms have gone too far, too fast and have failed to lift India's poor out of misery. Both the BJP and the National Front claim that if elected, they will restrict foreign investment to power and infra-structure. They want to kick out Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the other brand names which to them symbolise all that is wrong with the West.

Many of the country's top politicians are facing charges in a huge corruption scandal. Few doubt that the police investigation was triggered by Mr Rao, since the victims are his biggest rivals both inside and outside his Congress party. Seven of Mr Rao's ministers were forced to resign and all were denied party tickets for the May elections. Mr Rao's gamble may have backfired, however; several of his ex-ministers are running as independents or have joined other parties.

The polls giving Congress an edge over the others was released before Mr Rao's party chiefs rebelled against him in Tamil Nadu. His strategy - concentrating his forces in the south instead of the northern states where Congress has lost ground to the National Front - now looks misguided. Not only may Congress lose, but Mr Rao, by crushing all adversaries within his party, may have shattered Congress for years to come.

Amid the thousands of candidates are several bandits, Bombay film stars and even a eunuch named after Kali, the goddess of destruction. Kali recently said: "Men and women have both been given chances, but they all turned out to be dishonest. Now give us eunuchs a chance." Not surprisingly, a few ex-wrestlers are now trying to become MPs, too. They have flung their own political bosses out of the arena.