THE BLOG
02/02/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

What's Not the Matter With Uttar Pradesh?

New Delhi, India -- India's in the midst of a rolling series of state elections, and one striking reality is that the voters Thomas Frank wishes Kansas possessed -- keenly focused on how those who govern them impact their own lives -- are found here by the scores. (Tens of millions.) This state, with 200 million residents, is one of the poorest and least well-educated in India. UP politicians are masters of identity politics run amock -- enormously complex calculations of how to combine various caste and regional groups, religious communities, and occupational groups -- into winning combinations.

The state is currently governed by Mayawati, a charismatic, hard-edged women from the Dalit's, the caste group at the bottom of the pyramid. She has spent a fortune building monuments to her mentors in the Dalit political movement, her mentor, her party and herself. So much did she spend on public monuments to herself and the elephant, the symbol of her party, that the Election Commission required hundreds of statutes to be covered with tarp's for the duration of the campaign.

But in Lucknow, the state capital, there is uniform agreement among the elite and the average voters -- India's "Am Adme" that Mayawati's unchallenged rule is over. Everyone I talk to says that giving her a majority was a huge mistake, and the voters will insist on divided government this time, choosing some coalition because it is seen as a better hedge against unlimited looting of the treasury. No one really seems to care what the statutes represent symbolically -- they simply complain that this is money that did not go to schools, hospitals, roads.

Indeed, these voters, many very poorly educated and even poorer economically, display a political sophistication and skepticism that is sorely lacking in American politics. The average person simply has almost no time for political theater -- they need to work too hard.  India TV does have FOX TV like shouting matches -- but they are in English, for the elite.

Old-fashioned machine politics -- the politics of benefits, of dividing the spoils -- is still the dominant flavor here. But the alternative to hand-out politics is not (except for a few upper middle class voters) the religious, ethnic, or caste symbolism. India's premier religiously based party, the BJP, draws a good chunk of its base from voters with a strong identification with Hinduism -- but its electoral strategies are fundamentally shaped by the need to submerge that aspect of its program in the bread and butter issues most voters care about.

Instead it is clean government, the politics of development, of good schools and infrastructure, and increasingly of environmental protection, that is competing with the old "vote bank" machines. A non-political social reformer, Ana Hazare, has been the big political news of the year here -- he is the Tea Party and Occupy and Ross Perot rolled into one! In the eastern part of this state, the Congress candidate Vishwa Vijay Singh, one of the new breed of "clean", graft-free candidates, is green in another sense -- the heart of his campaign is his success, before winning an Assembly seat, at obtaining a $60 million clean water grant to treat the pollution afflicting the Ami River, one of India's most sacred. Singh also boasts that he drives a five year old, low-end compact car. He's reminiscent of the young Jerry Brown.

The electorate still reflects India's past. The first state to vote, Punjab, turned in a 72% voter turn-out. Women and the poor voted in larger numbers than men and the middle-class -- increasingly the Indian norm. Even so, very few women were candidates -- the weight of gender discrimination still weighs heavily here. And the BJP and the Communists aside, most of India's parties have a very strong family, dynastic flavor -- the hold of the Nehru-Gandhi family on the Congress is only the longest standing example.

But having said that, Indian voters have clearly concluded that their power lies, primarily, in throwing the rascals out. And they exercise that power ferociously. The Punjab, for example, has not re-elected a state government since it was formed. An election like that of 2004 in the US, when a manifestly failed President was re-elected by running against his opponent’s lack of symbolic connection with the voters, is simply inconceivable.

And it shows. Thomas Friedman this week wrote how in both Arab autocracies and Putin's Russia, popular resentment builds and seethes as ordinary drivers wait for the limousines of the elite to race by them.  Here ordinary drivers wait -- the traffic is as bad as Cairo under Mubarak. But the problem is more likely to be a lowly three wheeler simply parked in the curb lane than an escorted Mercedes.

India has a long way to go. But its politics is doing a remarkable job of closing the dignity gap that weighed the society down for centuries. And it shows signs of maturing from machine politics to development performance, without being distracted by culture wars along the way. We could learn a few things here.