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Independents, new parties shake up Indian election

Walking the crowded back streets of Mumbai, observing disputes over tap water and choked drains and asking people for their votes is a new role for Meera Sanyal, a banker contesting the election as an independent candidate.

Sanyal, who is on a leave of absence from ABN-Amro, is just one example of the large number of independents and new parties targeting younger urban and middle class voters who have grown weary of dynastic party politics and endemic corruption.

Encouraged by heightened citizen activism after the militant attacks in Mumbai on November 26, these parties are taking baby steps in India’s general election towards building a national presence.

”A tipping point was required for them, and 26/11 was that,” said Surendra Srivastava, head in Mumbai of the three-year-old Lok Satta Party (People’s Rule), contesting in three states.

In Mumbai the militant attacks sparked middle class anger at authorities for what were seen as huge intelligence lapses.

Now the redrawing of constituency limits for the first time in three decades has given urban voters greater weight. Since Independence in 1947, parties have targeted rural voters.

”Voting in cities has always been low because there were no credible candidates,” said Sanyal, chatting with youngsters and seek the blessings of older women. ”People have realised the party system is not delivering.”

Be the change
While the main battle in most states is between the Congress party and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, hundreds of other parties are fighting the election.

Parties such as Loksatta, Jago Party and Lokparitran are made up of enthusiastic students, bankers, executives and homemakers.

”The middle-class considers politics dirty and steers clear, but there are so many talented and smart people among us who should take responsibility and step forward,” said RV Krishnan, president of the Professionals Party of India (PPI) in Mumbai.

The parties may not stand much of a chance — of 2 400 independents who contested the election in 2004, only five won.

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week called independents ”spoilers”, drawing a storm of criticism and highlighting fears among national parties these upstarts may erode their support amongst the 714-million electorate.

PPI has a surgeon for its candidate in south Mumbai, where Sanyal is also contesting against the incumbent Congress party candidate, the son of the federal oil minister.

Campaigning on the plank ”new politics for the new generation”, Lok Satta is contesting all six parliamentary seats in Mumbai, emboldened by the election of its candidate as a city official last year with campaign spending of only $1 500.

”We wanted to see if we could challenge the culture of money power and muscle power, and we showed it can be done,” said Srivastava of the experiment in the wealthy suburb of Juhu, where residents including film stars helped campaign for its candidate.

Other independents include well-known dancer Mallika Sarabhai in western Ahmedabad city. In the IT hub of Bangalore, GR Gopinath, an entrepreneur who launched India’s first budget airline, is contesting, riding a city bus on his campaign.

Sarabhai, who is pitted against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate LK Advani, relies on her website and Facebook groups.

Their campaigns are in sharp contrast to the massive rallies, large entourages and other paraphernalia of major party candidates.

”I spent 25 years in banking and intend to spend the next 25 years being more involved in my country. I did not make this decision lightly,” said Sanyal. — Reuters

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