Thursday, April 16, 2009

Small is big

Double whammy:

India, the world's largest democracy, is scheduled to begin its multi-stage parliamentary elections on April 16. Neither of the country’s two major parties, the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are expected to gain a majority, meaning India is likely headed for another coalition government.

Mahima Kaul is a freelance reporter based in Delhi who has written for The Indian Express. She explains how India’s political landscape has changed over the past several decades, as political support has fragmented and smaller parties have become more influential.

Election fever has peaked here in India. You cannot escape it — even local pastry shops are baking goodies in the form of party symbols. This is typical of the fanfare and celebrations that engulf the country as political parties, their numbers increasing every day, chase the Indian voter.

But to understand the real significance of how India votes, one needs turn back the clock a little. India’s particular brand of democracy has gone through many changes over the past 60 years. It is a parliamentary system, much like the British, and every five years national elections are held and the party with the most seats forms the government.

Simple enough. And it was, when the Congress party was the single largest party in the country. But in the 1970s, the political landscape of the country started to change. Smaller political players began to move to the center stage, and by the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular had grown in stature. Regional players began to flex their electoral muscles. This led to the system of government India has today — grand coalitions forming the government, with either the Congress party or the BJP leading it.

Over the years, the Congress party has steadily been losing ground in individual states, with regionalism trumping national concerns. Small state parties can hold the national government ransom because of the need for coalitions.

Political scientists have tried to decipher the mind of the Indian voter over the years. Overwhelmingly, votes are cast on the basis of identity; along religious or caste lines. That is why many members of parliament — and even chief ministers — have been voted back to power despite their obvious corruption and non-performance. Indian elections must be viewed through this prism.

This brings us to 2009. It is an enormous task to explain the internal dynamics of Indian politics because the number of players keep increasing by the day.

Some basics: The Congress leads the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, backed by smaller players that once included the Left (Indian communists). When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a nuclear deal with President Bush, the Left objected very strongly, and ultimately withdrew support from the government. This led to a “trust vote” in parliament where the UPA had to prove its majority.

What happened then was shocking and revealed the underbelly of Indian politics. The Congress-led government, allegedly, began to buy votes. BJP members brought, on live television, suitcases filled with wads of cash “proof” that the Congress party had tried to buy support. The nation was disgusted with the blatant display of corruption.

Not much later, the terror attacks in Mumbai revealed that while Indian politicians had been horse-trading and making money, the real work of a government — for instance, securing the borders — had been woefully neglected. Anger against the entire political establishment grew, because successive governments — be they Congress or BJP-led — have not taken these concerns seriously.

With polling beginning in only a few days, it is widely believed in the country that no party, including the Congress, will get a majority. Another coalition will be formed after the numbers are crunched. Opportunistic alliances will be made. Some of the larger regional players have also formed the Third Front; a credible threat to the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Bookies all over the country seem to think that the present government, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue. However, if that happens, the Congress will undoubtedly need the support of smaller parties prove a majority in the house.

The refreshing electoral trend this time is that a number of urban professionals have decided to contest key metropolitan seats as independents, signaling that perhaps urban India is done voting for morally bankrupt political parties. Right now, democracy is a numbers game. Parties with no common ideology will come together to form a coalition if it means sharing power at the center. Then comes governance.

The hope young India has for itself is that it can change the country’s priorities by greater participation. Let us see how it votes.

Reprinted at:


egg style said...

Suna hai Twenty-20 cricket iss dafa kuchh jama nahin, rajnaitik kashmakash/duvidha joh hai sarr taley.

Khushhaali ke saath khilwaad hone par Angrezi mein aksar kaha jaata hai, ‘It’s not cricket’, arthhaat, yeh sabhyata-evam-neeyamanusaar sahi nahin hai. Joh sahi hai, aam log kaafi hadd tak samajhte hain.

Zyada tarr hum unn mahavyaktiyon ke prati aadar dikhaate hain, aur beshak dikhaane bhi chahiye, joh chhote scorewaale kyon naa hon, inn aadarniye principles se naa keval nahin bhatakte, aur toh aur, kacch gumraahon ko laaljhanda phehraake rok dete hain madh-gardish, ya inn maamlon mein swatantrata kaa batwaara hone nnahin dena chahte kissi bhi keemat parr.

Afsos halaat, vijai ki ahmiyat aisi, bade scorewaalon ko hum dein taali !!

Anonymous said...

Okay, so small is big, big is bigger, and bigger is winner. Nuff said?

mahima said...

We didn't need the article, just your headline :)

Anonymous said...

No no Mahima. Good article, but trying to get your viewpoint. Small parties and independents are preferred by voters now you are saying but it is the big parties only who can realtiscally win elections and form a stable government to undertake change for the better, no?

mahima said...

Something like that. I've been watching The West Wing incessantly of late.. I think its having a huge effect!

extremeanarchist said...

Indian politics - probably the only thing that can put my 8-veggie-and-chorizo Jambalaya to shame, being about 5 times more colourful and 10 times more spicy. Epic.

egg style said...

West Wing, huh? Alan Alda was actually at his best in MASH from the 'Nam era.

Anyhow, guess it's a refresher from the local sorta humour ("Made in Amdavad", "Sadist day of my life" etc etc)

IR said...

very well written ,
i actually think that independents spoil the show , they take away votes from deserving candidates.I mean there is nothing you can do by just becoming an independent MP , you must be part of larger party/ coalition which is in power

professionals who are part of larger party set up are able to contribute much more ....

if the "thrid front " comes to power , it wont be good for the economy or the countyr in general , the markets will surely tank and prices of essential commodities will go up

IR said...

i heard arun jaitely in one of his " why bjp " lectures , he made a lot of points about why not congress , did not say anything about how bjp will be better

Anonymous said...

It's very confusing this election, thank you for the executive summary on this wonderful blog. It is an excellent resource for busy people who need to know issues of crucial importance presented in a well written and unpretentious manner.
All the very best. But was this blogposting written for HuffingtonPost readers?


Penguin madagascar said...

Gosh .....the election in India had no issues, I didn't hear any debate or any focus on things that really matter...all that indian media did was to talk about Mayawati or left or just follow some leader. Along with politician the media is to be blamed for the issueless election

Anonymous said...

The Big ISSUE was there very much all along. Just not made obvious. Didnt you notice anything or like some idiot NRI you are also like angrez crowd? read 'saffron hopes' in Economist this edition

Penguin madagascar said...

whats so great about the article ...again there are no real issues being discussed like education, healthcare, security, naxal problem, wealth distribution, infrastructure etc noone seems to be discussing specific plans.

Anonymous said...

Big issue was secularism. It is important. If Mr Madagascar you do not think so then there is little further to discuss with you, you are a western brainwashed person like so many nowadays you find in India who parrot American thinking etc etc. Even BJP the Hindu nationalist party is now thinking if RSS agenda (read We Our Nation Defined, or Hindutva, two books with reference to germane model to profit by as they argue) should be dropped so that people not motived by hatred will also vote for the party