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Hordes of Politicians Swamp India’s Earthquake Victims

October 5, 1993

NARANGWADI, India (AP) _ When Gangadhar Raoji Kunturkar, a small-time politician, visited this devastated village, most of the people rebuilding their shattered homes didn’t even look up.

That didn’t bother Kunturkar. He folded his hands in the traditional Indian way of greeting and said: ″Is there anything you need? Don’t be worried. We will get you everything you need.″

After five minutes in Narangwadi, he drove to the next village, accompanied by aides in another car, and repeated the same scene.

″It is like election time,″ said Mali Shivamurthy, as he built a tin shed that will be his home. ″Every hour a leader will come in his car, hold our hands and drive away.″

Hundreds of politicians - from local town leaders to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao - have visited the southwestern state of Maharashtra where so many people died in Thursday’s earthquake.

Official figures say 10,000 bodies have been identified so far, but unofficial estimates put the death toll at 30,000. About 80,000 people have been left homeless in 50 villages.

The disaster struck as India prepares for the most important elections since Hindu-Muslim violence exploded across the country late last year. The campaigns in four important states pit Rao’s Congress Party against the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is gaining power by promoting Hindu nationalism and fundamentalism.

Since the quake, almost every minister in the state Cabinet of Maharashtra and some federal ministers have visited the devastated region. Many state legislators and national opposition leaders also have breezed through.

The first major opposition leader to reach the area was Lal Krishna Advani, president of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. After seeing the devastation, he sent hundreds of party workers to assist in removing bodies and clearing rubble.

″We are helping the people to show them that only the BJP cares for the common man. So naturally, the next time they will vote for us,″ Prashant Khandekar, a member of the party’s student wing, said while removing heavy stones from a house.

But the political visits also have hampered relief operations as the cavalcades dominated the narrow village roads, often blocking army trucks carrying food and clothes to the victims.

Thousands of policemen were deployed on the roads to provide security.

The size of the politicians’ caravans and the number of aides increase with their power. Most of them come dressed in white handspun pyjamas and loose white shirt in keeping with the informal dress code among Indian politicians.

On Monday, when Rao toured stricken villages, many people tried to break the security cordon and reach him with complaints. But most were pushed back by policemen swinging canes.

Many see the politicians as the only way to get help by bypassing corrupt and inefficient officials. Others are much more skeptical.

″The politicians only come to see. Not to serve,″ said Shivamurthy, who has stopped counting the number of politicians who have visited his village since last week. ″Yeah, yeah,″ nodded his neighbors in agreement.

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