Political novice in India meets a gritty reality on campaign trail

Gardiner Harris
AAP leader Manish Sisodia along with the Lok Sabha candidate for Gautam Budh Nagar seat of Aam Aadmi Party KP Singh during the road show campaign on April 5, 2014 in Noida, India.
Burhaan Kinu | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

She marched through her campaign office like a candidate from almost anywhere in the world, girding herself to address a scrum of reporters. But the reporters were not interested in an interview. Instead, they came to insist that she buy ads in their newspapers.

"If you give us business, we will cover you, but if you don't give us money," one reporter said with a pause and a shrug. "Well, we will still cover you."

To Shefali Misra, a candidate from the upstart Aam Aadmi Party here, the threat was clear.

"They'll smear me if I don't pay," she said grimly after the reporters left.

Read More Why election won't spur immediate change in India

Ms. Misra, a social worker running for office for the first time on a good-governance platform, is seeking one of 543 parliamentary seats in India's national elections, a six-week exercise in which 814 million people are registered to vote. The sheer size of the electorate makes this election the largest ever in the world and an inspiring celebration of universal adult suffrage.

But lurking behind the feel-good spectacle is the reality that India's elections are awash in illegal cash, serious violence and dirty tricks. Parliamentary candidates are supposed to limit campaign expenditures to about 7 million rupees, or about $116,000, but few comply. Vote buying is so common that the Indian Election Commission has begun monitoring regional airports for the arrival of private planes and helicopters, and the police have set up roadblocks throughout the country to look for large amounts of cash, gold and alcohol, the usual currencies to buy loyalty at the ballot box.

What is Modinomics?

It is a gritty new world for Ms. Misra, 39, who studied at the London School of Economics and left a job in November at the United Nations Development Program. She has promised to fight corruption, build a high school for girls and give constituents better access to government services. She is passionate about improving the lives of women, whose status in India is particularly low.

She is not the only Indian who believes that even an honest, shoestring campaign can win.

"Despite all the payoffs, democracy in India does work," said Anil Bairwal, a longtime election analyst. "There are times when a candidate outspends his opponent by leaps and bounds and still loses."

Read MoreChange for India's economy long way off, despite election

But days spent with Ms. Misra on the campaign trail demonstrated the hurdles she faced at every turn, not the least was a vast gap between the hope and the reality of what India's government could actually deliver. In multiple meetings, voters asked for interest-free loans and free weaving machines but left unmentioned the government's inability to provide desperately needed sanitation and clean water.

To Ms. Misra's great frustration, not a single woman appeared at any of her campaign rallies over two days. At one gathering, a man locked the door on several women silently peeking in through a crack from an adjoining kitchen. And while the Aam Aadmi Party eschews religious appeals, Ms. Misra found herself on her knees pleading for the support of a turbaned dwarf who bills himself as a religious leader and healer.

Though with the reporters, Ms. Misra had a measured response.

"I'm not the one who decides where to buy ads," she said patiently. "A central party committee decides that."

Matching voter expectations with government capacity in such an astonishingly complex nation is a daunting governance challenge. India has about 850 languages, thousands of castes, and vast economic and cultural differences that make any promise or policy in one place potentially inappropriate for another.

Read More World's biggest election: Game changer for India?

Sitapur district, for instance, has a population about the size of Ireland's and an infant mortality rate worse than much of sub-Saharan Africa's. For Ms. Misra, the answer is a new party that has made ending India's endemic political corruption a central plank.

"I'm not a politician," Ms. Misra said in a stump speech that would sound familiar to voters across the world. "If I was a politician, I'd make all these false promises I couldn't possibly keep."

Ms. Misra started her campaign with a procession of 10 motorized rickshaws, one of the symbols of her party. The autos, as they are known here, parked in the narrow lane outside of Ms. Misra's campaign headquarters, caused a cacophonous backup.

Campaign workers came out of the office with armloads of brooms, a party symbol intended to convey a clean image. They tied the brooms to the autos with the bristles pointing skyward like torches. Buglelike loudspeakers were affixed to two.

Key personalities in India's election

About 100 party faithful gathered around Ms. Misra as she was garlanded with marigolds and carnations. With a great cheer, the volunteers stuffed into the autos and piled onto motorcycles. But Ms. Misra's auto, modified so she could stand, would not start. Volunteers rushed into the lane, cleared away a clot of rickshaws, motorcycles and cattle, and pushed it until it started.

More honking and shouting ensued as the assembly made a U-turn to drive onto a wider lane. But 50 yards away, the whole procession stopped. Ms. Misra's loudspeaker did not work, and a campaign aide was sent to retrieve a new microphone.

After 40 minutes, Ms. Misra had had enough.

"I want to start," she told her chief aide. "It's going to get too hot."

Read More Why India's state elections matter

So Ms. Misra got into her auto again and folded her hands, mute. The local party director with the only working microphone shouted: "Down with corruption! Come out, we're with you!"

The procession passed sari shops, jewelry stores, and pushcart vendors with popcorn, pomegranates and peanuts. It moved through a Muslim neighborhood where men wore white skullcaps and women black veils, and a Hindu neighborhood where a sinewy man wearing nothing but an orange cloth and a placid expression washed his feet at a hand pump.

That night, Ms. Misra and several party workers piled into an S.U.V. and drove over potholed dirt roads to Qusbati Tola, a crowded Muslim slum. Ms. Misra was tense. She said that she had been repeatedly threatened by thugs allied with the Samajwadi Party, a powerful presence in Muslim areas. Assassinations, beatings and other forms of political violence are common in India.

She walked from the vehicle through narrow alleys past brick homes, the acrid smell and pall of smoke from kitchens burning dung for fuel hanging in the air. She was soon surrounded by a dozen men and twice that many children, and when the area's power cut out, her followers took out small flashlights to show the way. Once she reached a central area, she settled on a blanket in a small courtyard, and she and two party workers gave speeches to an all-male crowd of about 40.

More from the New York Times:

Ukraine's Push East Falters as Militants Seize Army Vehicles
Sharp Decline Seen in Complications From Diabetes
Hundreds Missing After Ferry Sinks Off South Korea

A dozen or more women stood listening in the doorways of homes near the courtyard, and at the end of the meeting, Ms. Misra got up and went to them. By then, the number of children had grown to at least 30, and Ms. Misra delighted them by teaching them a chant:

"Vote for!" Ms. Misra shouted as bats flew around her head, and the children shrieked, "Broom!"

The next morning, Ms. Misra walked across a field to a set of buildings with a sign over them announcing a religious order devoted to a Hindu goddess, Kamakhya. She put a scarf over her head and ducked into a courtyard with a low awning made of grass and bamboo. At one end of the courtyard sat Munnalal, the single-named, turbaned dwarf leader of the order.

"You'll get at least 75,000 votes from my area," he told Ms. Misra.

As Munnalal and Ms. Misra spoke, his waiting area — several benches set up near him — began to fill with followers. He beckoned a young woman and gave her one of Ms. Misra's pamphlets.

Read MoreWill social media be a game changer for India elections?

"Tell your entire family to vote for the broom," Munnalal told the woman.

"O.K.," she said.

Ms. Misra knelt before him and asked for his blessing.

"I will give it, but you must do more canvassing and get up earlier in the morning," Munnalal said. Ms. Misra's aide, who had given the exact same advice, smiled ruefully.

"I will," Ms. Misra promised, and she bowed her head for the blessing.