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India's Election: Mumbai Votes 5 Months After Attack

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. People who lived through the Mumbai attacks last year had a chance to express themselves yesterday at the polls. Now India's voters almost always turn out in droves, but not the very rich. And many of them live in Mumbai, which had its turn to vote in India's massive rolling general election yesterday. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: It's hard to believe it actually happened. Five months ago, after setting off from Pakistan, a group of Islamist militants landed on Mumbai shores and fanned out into the city.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

REEVES: They mowed down dozens of passengers at a railway terminus. They stormed into a Jewish center and two five-star hotels, one of them the world-famous Taj Mahal Palace. It took nearly three days before India's security forces got control of those buildings. By then, more than 170 people were dead, including six Americans.

Mr. JOSSUN DAKUNA(ph): Nobody who's been born and raised in Bombay as I have been could watch Victoria Terminus attacked as it was, dozens of people slain with a machine gun there. Nobody like me could've watched the burning Taj and not felt enraged, infuriated and immensely saddened.

REEVES: Jossun Dakuna is a leading light in a pressure group campaigning for good governance. He recalls something else that happened around that time in Mumbai - or Bombay, as he calls it. On December 3rd, a couple of days after the assault, people took to the streets to express their fury and sadness.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

REEVES: Many thousands gathered at the Gateway of India, the famous monument aside the Taj Mahal Hotel. Big protests rallies in India are often organized by political outfits who bring in their usually poor supporters by the busload. Jossun Dakuna says this one was different.

Mr. DAKUNA: The third of December, that event at the Gateway of India, was young, it was middle class, it was immense. And the interesting thing was the points being made were not let's get Pakistan or down with the Muslims. All the placards held up, all the slogans being shouted were against the government.

REEVES: At a city center polling booth, a couple of dozen men and women line up to cast their ballots and have their fingers marked with indelible ink. It's hot and very muggy. A lot of people are out of town, because it's a four-day holiday weekend. The place is far from swamped.

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: In fact, there seems to be more luck down on the beach, where kids are frolicking in the grubby waters of the Arabian Sea. They live in an unusual constituency. Although there are slums, south Mumbai is considered the richest corner of the country. You find billionaires from big business living in lavish apartments and bars and restaurants full of young articulate cosmopolitans.

Yet, it has a poor voting record. At the last general election in 2004, the turnout was well below the national average. This is part of a larger phenomenon in India. In Western democracies, the educated and affluent tend to vote in larger numbers than the poor. In India, it's the opposite. Past turnouts by the urban middle class young have been dismal, less than 15 percent.

Nimish Indapda(ph) is 24 and was born and bred in Mumbai. He's sitting with several friends in Leopold's Cafe. Seven people died in this cafe when the militants rampaged through town in November. Indapda is from VoteIndia, a group campaigning hard to get young urban middle class Indians to vote. He thinks they tend to feel outnumbered by the poor, who vote en masse.

Mr. NIMISH INDAPDA (VoteIndia): It's ignorance. Every individual thinks my word doesn't count. So basically because they have seen how the people the slums, you know, that chunk of the country actually goes up and votes. And, you know, it's they who choose who's going to be governing the city or the country.

REEVES: This year, there's been a big effort to change this. A radio station in Mumbai yesterday offered prizes for those who voted early. One boutique gave discounts on jeans for voters. Shridar Jaganatan(ph), a young writer trying to get into Bollywood, is also working with VoteIndia. If the Mumbai attacks don't galvanize people into participating in democracy, than what will, he asks.

Mr. SHRIDAR JAGANATAN (VoteIndia): Even here (unintelligible) attacked. There is a bullet mark here. There is a crater here because of a grenade that was lobbed into this place. People lost their lives here. And if this doesn't make them come out and say, well, I need something new here. I need a change. I really don't see anything else working.

REEVES: So what went wrong? The turnout in south Mumbai yesterday was just over 43 percent, slightly down on last time. Political analysts are busy trying to work out why. One Indian newspaper has already drawn its own conclusion. The people of Mumbai, says today's Hindustan Times, have shown their disdain for the spirit of democracy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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