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The Ecstasy and Agony of India -- From the Political to the Tribal

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Currently checking out interesting NGOs empowering Muslim women in my home country. The world's largest democracy remains a paradox. Take Lucknow, the capitol of the largest state in the world, Uttar Pradesh, teeming with 200 million people. This state is part of the northern Indian swathe derisively referred to as the cowbelt, because of its economic backwardness. Given its population, Uttar Pradesh could be the fifth largest country in the world, but in India it is known for its social indicators -- low rates of literacy and high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

Lucknow still boasts spectacular 15th century monuments, the legacy of aristocratic "Nawabs" -- alongside scores of statues of its current and first-ever lower caste Chief Minister, the formidable Mayawati.

Mayawati, and her statutes, sport a bob haircut and a signature Gucci bag on her arm, modeled on Maggie Thatcher. Hundreds of acres in downtown Lucknow are dedicated to Mayawati's credo: "Political leaders from the outcastes can be just as grandiose as those from the traditional elite." The significance of those sculptured totems, raised at a cost of billions have not been lost on the poor voters, including the Dalits (formerly untouchables) who powered Mayawati's victory run in the last state election. For them, Mayawati stands tall as a political leader of India's most populous state who has empowered them politically as much as she has empowered herself. But at the same time her efforts to recreate Moghul scale public spaces in the 21st century may bring her down.

What I love about Indian politics is that "Aam Admi," the common man/woman, has a finger firmly placed on the political realities and should never be underestimated. Our taxi driver who drove us into town from the airport, all the while providing us with a pertinent update including a poignant sound bite on Mayawati: "How could she build these wasteful monuments when the people need healthcare, education and sanitation? These monuments do not benefit the common man in any way." This was a refrain we heard multiple times during our stay in this beautiful, cultured city, once host to poets, musicians and artisans, and still celebrated for its exquisite cuisine.

Elections are currently under way in a handful of states in India this year, including Uttar Pradesh. Despite the country's low levels of education and widespread poverty, the voter turnout has been gratifyingly high -- up to 78 percent. While voters are sometimes paid to exercise their franchise (anything from a bottle of hooch to a computer, we are reliably informed), voting is higher among those belonging to the low- income groups rather than the Indian elites.

Politics cannot be severed from the mind-blowing personal journey in Lucknow: the Hindu driver who accompanied us to visit Muslim women's projects and the Shia Nawabi monuments was a philosopher who understood the core of Islam. He lives in love and harmony with his Muslim neighbors. I wonder, even as he is tells me that he is virtually raising his Muslim neighbor's daughter who dines with his family most nights as if she is his own, how this happens, and he offers an explanation: "First, we respect our common humanity with our neighbors and then we follow our faiths."

As my husband and I stroll along the banks of the Gomti river, enjoying the wind blown, kaleidoscopic saris, freshly embroidered, starched and washed by the dhobis or washer men, then suspended to dry, we meet, chat and fall in love with a soulful dhobi. On his bare knees on the rocky river bank, washing and starching the clothes at least nine times, he gives generously of his time. I probe about politics, his family life, and communalism. "There is no difference between Hindus and Muslims. I have supported the Bharatiya Janata Party, (a right wing party focused on economics which sometimes stirs the pot on communalism). I have donated (through his labor union), campaigned and voted for the former Prime Minister Vajpayee, who ran for office from this district but I will not support the corrupt Mayawati, (current chief minister) because she has squandered the common man's public resources." By the standard of educated folks, our dhobi might be viewed as uneducated but he is wise. He gets the issues, he has a moral rudder. He too prides himself in living peacefully with his Hindu neighbors. He comes by his principles honestly and from his tribe -- his ancestors -- and believes and follows in their footsteps, retracing their commitments and actions of living in peace with fellows, whether Hindu dhobis or Muslim. When I offered the dhobi a small tip for hijacking him from his work, he refused the tip and touched my heart when he said, "I spoke to you from my heart. I can't take money from you," as he ekes out a meager living for his family on the banks of the Gomti. Imagine that!

But if Aam Admi thrills, the political leadership chills. The political paradoxes of India invade even the literary circuit. Two noted authors -- the famous or infamous (depending on your point of view) Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," was recently told by government that it could not guarantee his protection if he chose to attend the literary festival in Jaipur, India in January. Similarly, Taslima Nasrin, author of "Shame" had her book launch cancelled at the Calcutta book fair, because the political parties were stirring up potential violence. Many Indians viewed these bans as an attempt by the Congress-ruled government both at the Centre and in Rajasthan to pander to fundamentalist sentiments within the Muslim community -- a key vote block in current elections which are underway.

Where my taxi driver and dhobi would have peace, their leaders see advantage in strife - where and when does India reach the tipping point and choose its path?