Economy weighs heavily in India’s Assam

The first phase of the world’s largest election gets underway in Assam, where change looks increasingly likely.

The catchy headlines are out in full force. “World’s largest democracy goes to the polls” “Largest election in history” “India’s elections – more people voting than the population of the EU and the US combined”.

That last one may be a little long for a headline, but you get the idea.  As memorable as these truisms are, they don’t grasp the human element on the ground. As large as the election is, so is the diversity in languages, ethnicities and economics of Indians.  Sometimes within the same town.

In Dibrugarh, Assam, one of the sites of the first phase of India’s nine-phase election, and where Al Jazeera is beginning its TV coverage, views and voters vary.

Far away from the bursting metros of New Delhi or Mumbai, much of India is like Dibrugarh: a mixture of rural and small town life.  Security issues stemming from ULFA rebels used to be the dominate issue here. Now, economic development is the top priority, just as it is in most of the country.

The governing Indian National Congress won this constituency last time. Much of the party’s traditional support comes from tea workers, employed in the various and vast tea fields that dot the landscape outside of town. Union leaders say their members will be supporting Congress again. Although they admit they can’t control how many of their members will actually go to the polling stations, or change their minds at the last minute. That uncertainty is key to who wins Dibrugarh, as well as the rest of India.

Congress is seen by many here to be the champion of the poor and lower-middle classes. Or it was anyway. Deepali (only one name) – a resident of Dibrugarh, works as a maid. She says, somewhat proudly, that she voted for Congress in the last election.

“This time we’ll see,” she tells me.

Change is coming

When I press her on why she’s not certain, she cites the same problems many others here and around the country have, economic slowdown and corruption. Because of these, she’s still undecided on whether Congress will get her vote again. 

“I’ll decide when I vote.”

Dibajyoti Das, who works at a local retail shop also voted for Congress in the last election, but this time for sure us voting for the current opposition Bhartia Janata Party (BJP). His reasons are more practical.

“I voted for Congress last time. Now I guess it’s the BJP’s turn. Plus they (Congress) have been in power for 10 years. Let’s give the BJP a turn.”

The BJP is banking on voters like these, and their traditional base of businessmen and traders in Dibrugarh, to beat the incumbent candidate.

Polls are showing a general dissatisfaction with the current government and a large turnout would indicate change is coming. That’s the feeling here in Dibrugarh as well. However polls have been wrong before. The 2004 election saw the then opposition Congress party and allies come to power, in an upset that went against all the polls.

This election will also make history as the first in India where balloting is exclusively via electronic voting machine in every polling station. Paper ballots will be a back-up.

Several hundred polling station officials gathered in Dibrugarh the day before the election to collect and test their machines before heading back to their home districts in the area.

Many of the voting stations are schools in the area. It’s here, in front of an electronic voting machine that Deepali will finally make her decision.

Over the next six weeks, it’s from these schools that India will learn the results of history’s largest election.

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