Last Thursday, India went to the polls. For us in Guyana, where we have disputes about counting barely 400,000 votes, imagine an electorate of 714 million voting in over 800,000 polling stations. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel will be mobilised to ensure the fairness and safety of the polls.
India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons. Thursday’s voting is the first of five phases and the outcome of the election will not be known until May 16th.
That outcome at this time is up in the air but what is certain is that neither of the two parties with the wherewithal to field candidates across the country – the Indian National Congress (“Congress”) nor the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) will capture enough votes to garner a majority in the 543 lower house (Lok Sabha).
This means that once again the party emerging with the largest bloc will be asked by the President to form a coalition and constitute the Government.
This pattern continues a trend that developed over the last two decades as the stranglehold of Congress was first broken by the rise of the BJP and then the further splintering of the vote by regional and caste based parties – especially in the northern, “Hindi Belt”.
In the last elections, Congress formed a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that replaced the BJP coalition – National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Even though dogged by inter-party tensions, both coalitions proved durable enough to complete their respective five-year terms. At election time – and even between elections for the party in opposition – the coalitions invariably break apart, with the members forming new alliances to augment their post-election bargaining position.
Some commentators view this fluidity of coalitions as a strength of Indian, federalised democracy since it serves to ensure that the centre is not captured by any one faction. The need to compromise means that a pragmatic, non-ideological approach is most probable in any of the several combinations and permutations that would constitute an Indian government. Critics, however, hold that the need to satisfy such diverse interests means that the large pressing problems that beset India – poverty, communalism, caste differences etc. – would never be addressed frontally and fundamentally.
But the polity is evolving so rapidly that it is very difficult to make pronouncements on these issues with any degree of certitude. One of the potentially most revolutionary developments is the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led Mayawati (one name), a Chamar – one of the lowest caste in the social hierarchy.
From its base in Uttar Pradesh, which has a population as large as Brazil, Mayawati who captured the Chief Ministership, has launched the party into several other states with a platform based on championing the interests of the lower castes.
In a canny move that belies her homespun image, she struck an alliance with the upper-caste Brahmins and Muslims that has become a serious challenge to the two larger “national” parties.
There is even serious talk of her becoming the head of a “Third Force” that could catapult her into the Prime Minister’s office – a job that she has openly declared is her ambition. While Congress would have normally been seen as the favourite in the present elections after securing a growth rate of 7% annually during their watch, this growth by and large did not percolate down to the bottom.
The Mumbai attack and the present drop in the stock market have turned off the middle class adding to the trend where it was the lower classes that generally determined the face of the government.
From an economic and foreign policy perspective, not much distinguishes the several possible coalitions that might emerge. The left, which was a significant partner in the recent UPA alliance, never significantly constrained Congress’ policies and will emerge with a smaller base. It would appear that India would continue its march as the largest democracy in the world.