In a country where men have long told their wives whom to vote for, Sheila Kumar says she has no intention of letting her husband dictate her vote in next month's national election.
''Never again,'' Kumar said as she waited to collect a bucket of drinking water from the communal tap in a south Delhi slum.
She sounds every bit the modern Indian woman, a reflection of a country with many of the outward signs of modernity: the glitzy shopping malls, the tech-savvy billionaires and the burgeoning focus on women's rights.
But it's not so simple. Because even if she won't allow her husband to choose her candidate, there is someone else who gets that power.
''The caste elders will decide who we should vote for,'' said Kumar, 43, a member of the small, midlevel Kurmi caste. ''We will vote for someone from our own caste. Why should we support anyone else?''
As the world's largest democracy heads to the polls starting Monday, India's often baffling contradictions are on full display, with age-old traditions of caste loyalty, patriarchy and nepotism often clashing with the values of a modern world.
But even though democracy is far from perfect here, it still lurches forward. Elections in India are generally considered free and fair, and even the powerful often fall to defeat at the hands of voters.
A strong constitution, hammered out by political leaders who were veterans of India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule, laid the foundations for the democratic process. The politically independent Election Commission, empowered by the constitution, has the last word on political wrangles.
''Politicians know that they are accountable to their electorate. If people have voted them into office, they can just as easily toss them out in the next election,'' said Ajoy Bose, a political commentator in New Delhi.
Still, the challenges are rife. Voting patterns are heavily influenced by caste, the complex social ladder that mobilizes entire communities. Although India's constitution and laws forbid discrimination on the basis of caste, the social division continues to dominate electoral politics. The former ''untouchables,'' or Dalits, are a powerful vote bank and political parties make all manner of promises to woo them.
Women's votes are often dictated by the men in the household, although that appears to be changing somewhat with growing literacy and as more women get jobs. But family and community elders still hold enormous sway. Corruption, a longtime