India’s general election juggernaut is on the move with polling, announced yesterday, on five days from April 16 to May 13, and vote counting on Saturday May 16. So India should have a new government by the middle-end of May. It’s a massive task with 714m potential voters (far more than three times America’s 210m), 170m of them aged under 35, and nearly 830,000 polling centres.
No-one can sensibly forecast who will win. The result will probably be dictated more by regional parties, which join national coalitions, than by the two main national Parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2004, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was expected to win but lost, mainly because its regional allies were defeated, notably in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
The final shapes of the coalitions are not yet known because national and regional parties are negotiating how many seats each should allocated to contest in an alliance. For example, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Congress is arguing with the local Samajwadi Party about how many seats each should have. In some cases, notably Tamil Nadu, who links with who could depend on how those seat negotiations turn out.
They are often best avoided because they are wilful, unreliable and temperamental. That of course is a hugely inaccurate and horribly chauvinistic allegation, but it is entirely true about the three women regional politicians who matter most in this election:
MAYAWATI, the low caste Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief minister of UP, who wants to be prime minister one day. She continually proves herself an unstable and unreliable partner, and seems more interested in her extravagant personality cult than sustaining coalitions.
JAYALALITHA JAYARAM, a former flamboyant AIADMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who also has prime ministerial ambitions. She is most important because she could deliver a sizeable block of seats to whichever national coalition she joins.
MAMATA BANERJEE, whose tantrums as leader of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal drove Tata Motors’ Nano plant out of the state last year and killed a chemicals’ industry special economic zone. While fighting those projects, she exposed the rough Stalinist tactics of the ruling Left Front, led by the CPI(M). The question now is whether her Tata and SEZ “victories” will lead people to desert her because she drove away jobs, or support her because they are tired of the Left Front.
They are also best avoided but it’s not possible to do so in modern India. There are far too many of them, with seemingly endless lists of sons and daughters being brought into politics, as successors, by their parents and other relatives.
Dynasties generally have a negative impact on politics because they block a party’s development. They did however produce some impressive young MPs in the 2004 election, such as Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Manvendra Singh, Omar Abdullah (now chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir), Milind Deora and, of course, Rahul Gandhi – so they are not all bad.
States to Watch
It is fashionable in Delhi, and in India’s national media, to say that the huge northern state of UP is the most important state to watch in a general election. That used to be true when Congress ruled alone, and its ups and downs against the BJP could be gauged in UP. Now the voting in this state is so splintered, with Mayawati’s and other regionally-based parties gaining strength, that it is not so significant as a litmus test of the final result.
Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, have been much more decisive in the past two elections – especially Tamil Nadu where there are basically only two voting blocks led by the DMK (now ruling the state) and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK.
Prime Ministers – there are several candidates, led by:
Manmohan Singh, the current of Congress prime minister, assuming he recovers sufficiently from his recent heart surgery – he is 76. If Congress wins and he is not fit enough, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, would have to decide whether to become prime minister herself (which she declined to do in 2004), or put her heir-apparent son, 38-year old Rahul Gandhi, into the job, or (less likely) select a non-family politician whom she trusts not to stand in Rahul’s way later.
Lal Krishna Advani, 81, who leads the BJP now that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has retired.
If neither party wins enough seats to lead a coalition, or if it has to give way to a coalition partner in order to win its support, the candidates include: Mayawati; Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar and leader of the Janata Dal (U), he is a former railways minister; Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former Bihar chief minister and now railways minister; and Sharad Pawar, a powerful veteran politician and now the agriculture minister, he is a former defence minister and chief minister of Maharashtra, and leads the regional-based Nationalist Congress Party.
It may seem odd to write this 900-word column without mentioning policies, but that is how it is with modern Indian politics.
There is of course the sharp divide between Congress and the BJP over the BJP’s arch Hindu-nationalism, which will dictate how tens of millions of people vote even though its nationalism would be restrained in a coalition.
The current poor state of the economy, and recent terrorist attacks, may count against Congress, but there seems little to choose between the parties on these subjects.
The main thing India needs is stability to open up the economy further and resist terrorism, so it needs a stable coalition government. The risk is that it might not get it.
This post is also on the FT website – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/eeb43778-07de-11de-8a33-0000779fd2ac,dwp_uuid=a6dfcf08-9c79-11da-8762-0000779e2340.html
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