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Independent Candidates Rising in India Politics

There has been a huge increase in the number independent candidates, mostly ordinary citizens, vying for seats in India's parliament this election, a sign of growing frustration with the country's two biggest parties. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Mumbai.

Many of Mumbai's politicians seek out votes in slums like these, home to about 70 percent of the city's 14 million people. Residents at this South Mumbai slum say they have seen an unusually high number of candidates passing through here, asking for their support.

At least 19 candidates, many of them from new independent parties, are vying for South Mumbai's seat in India's parliament this election. That is nearly three times the number of contenders for the seat during the last election.

Mona Shah is one of them, an eye surgeon who turned to politics. She leads the newly formed Professionals Party of India. "New parties are important in India today because the existing, traditional parties are so steeped in corruption that people need to see the hope that will lead the country forward. And that is one of the main reasons that new parties like ours have been floated with clearly defined objectives for the people, not for ourselves," she said.

Analysts say the rise of so many independent candidates like Shah is a sign of growing public frustration with the nation's two main parties, the ruling Congress Party led alliance and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Citizens have formed watchdog groups aimed at rooting out corrupt politicians. Others have formed their own political parties, fielding their own candidates.

It also shows that public fury over last year's deadly Mumbai siege, known here at the 26/11 attacks, has morphed into a surge in political activism among ordinary citizens not only in Mumbai, but across the country. .

"The 26/11 [attacks] perhaps has been the last straw where a lot of us thought that something definitely needs to be done. We have given enough opportunities and chances to the existing traditional parties to make a difference and that has not happened. So now we find ourselves taking charge," said Shah.

In the first phase of Indian elections earlier this month, half of the 947 candidates vying for parliamentary seats were from independent parties. There are more than 5,000 candidates, many of them independent, running for the 545 seats in India's parliament.

In other parts of the country, independent candidates from a colorful range of backgrounds have taken their first steps in the political arena. Among them are doctors, bankers, Bollywood stars, cricket players and dancers.

A political analyst for the Delhi-based Foundation for Pluralism and Inclusion, Azim Khan, says candidates run for a wide variety of reasons. "There are some reasons for the rise of independent candidates who are contesting elections this time. Sometimes, a very popular leader is not in a position to get a ticket from a recognized political party. There are other things as well. In some cases, it is caste," he said.

Some independent candidates say campaigning is dangerous in some parts of the country where politics are dominated by either Congress or BJP. Campaign volunteers for independent candidates have been harassed and threatened by supporters from more established parties.

As some leaders of the country's major parties make dramatic election-rally entrances aboard whirling helicopters, independent candidates knock on doors, talk to small groups of people, and hand out campaign leaflets, a more grass-roots approach to politics.

And not everyone is encouraged by the proliferation of independents running for office. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called them "spoilers."

Others say a vote cast for an independent candidate is a vote wasted. Khan disagrees. He says that India's democracy is probably safer in the hands of independent candidates and candidates from hundreds of India's smaller, regional parties. "They feel more responsibility toward their constituency than their political party," he said.

That is, unlike many of the politicians from the bigger, more established parties who, he says, often are more loyal to the party than to the voters who put them in office.

But neither of the two main parties is likely to win a clear parliamentary majority, forcing them to lure winning candidates of regional and independent parties like Shah's, sometimes with cash bonuses and political favors.

But Shah and many other independent candidates have vowed that, if elected, they would not hand over their constituency to the highest bidder.