India goes to the polls

The fifteenth national elections to the Indian parliament finished yesterday (May 13) and the results will be announced on May 16. Some 713 million Indians are eligible to vote, in comparison to 131 million voters in the recent US presidential election. The sheer scale of these elections necessitated their being staged over a whole month, beginning on April 16.

What worries everyone is that there is no clear front runner in a more or less triangular contest between the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by National congress; the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its Hindu nationalistic ideology; and the “Third Front”, a theoretical coalition of major regional parties, with no binding ideology or common programme.

No debate on ideologies and issues

L K Advani Photo: WikipediaThe 2009 election has passed without any real debates on ideologies and issues. The Congress Party, the oldest party, which led India to its Independence in 1947, has lost its pan-Indian appeal, getting only 34.3 per cent of votes in the last election in 2004. Traditionally it has favoured economic socialism, but has recently opened to liberal capitalism.

BJP, led by L K Advani and with 30 per cent of the vote in the last election is seen as a communal party, carrying the flag for Hindu nationalism. The minority religious communities, particularly Muslims and Christians, have suffered persecution under their governments.

The Communist Party, the third largest party in the last election, and the Socialist Party, together reflecting regional differences, claim to be champions of poor.

In addition, during the past three decades regional parties have emerged, voicing local aspirations, and have won power in state governments. These regional parties together won the support of 35.8 per cent of the voters in the last election. Now their plan is to form a Third Front, challenging the two other major parties.

Probably it was the failure of the Congress Party that provoked the creation of over two dozen regional parties. As usual, all political parties are wooing minorities like Muslims (12 per cent), Tribals (8 per cent), and Dalits (16 per cent) -- traditionally known as outcasts and untouchables.

Key social issues

Poverty, increasing unemployment and shrinking job opportunities are challenging the whole nation. By the government’s own admission 25 per cent of Indians (over 250 million) live below poverty line. The United Nations estimate is 35 per cent. The agricultural sector, absorbing 50 per cent of the population, grows at the rate of 3 per cent, with marginal improvement during last four years, and contributes a mere 17 per cent to total GDP. The current 6 per cent in industrial growth is down from 9 per cent just two years ago. The economic melt down caused the loss of two million jobs, adding to the existing high level of unemployment. It is estimated that around 50,000 Indian employees in the USA will be returning each year for the next three years, in addition to those coming back from the Gulf region.

Food prices are 8 per cent higher than last year; food grains 11 per cent costlier, aggravating the misery of the poor. The main reason for this is that India is not producing enough food grains to match the demand of the growing population. Infrastructure like roads, clean drinking water and electricity are major demands of the people.

While the politicians highlight terror attacks, including the recent attack on Mumbai, the economic a capital of India, on 26th November 2008, the electorate seems to be less moved by the issue. The voter turn out in Bombay recently was an appalling 43 per cent, in contrast with a national average of 65 per cent, with exceptional records of 90 per cent in a few rural pockets. The rural voters seem to be more optimistic.

Poor image of Indian politicians

According to a national survey by The Times of India in March, 59 per cent of the people believe that the primary motive of politicians is to make money. This is confirmed by the declared assets of the sitting candidates, whose income increased by between 50 per cent and 1500 per cent during the past five years. An alarming 72 per cent of the respondents opined that most of the Indian politicians are inefficient and that they are corrupt.

Out of 543 candidates elected to the parliament in 2004, 125 had criminal charges against them. Money power and muscle power play not a small role in Indian elections. The criminal-politician nexus is well known. Criminal elements seek and get shelter within the political system; they in return offer muscle power to their mentors. The judicial system in India is too slow and cases drag on for decades.

Criminalization, corruption, communalism and caste-ism are four most sullied characteristics of Indian politics. Even those who enter politics with a clean image can hardily escape the clutches of the system. India is thus caught up in a vicious circle.

Prime ministerial candidates

Ms Mayawati Photo: APWhile the Congress Party’s prime ministerial candidate is the current incumbent, Dr. Manmohan Singh, L.K. Advani is the official candidate of BJP, the Hindu party. Ms. Mayawati, 53, a Dalit daughter (belonging to the out caste) and the current chief minister of the largest Indian state (Uttar Pradesh) has also thrown her hat in the ring. The Third Front may not be averse to her naked ambition.

Ms Mayawati will have to overcome the prevailing prejudices of 3000 years of her pariah status, in a way similar to the US black president, Barak Obama. The comparison begins and ends, however, with the fact both represent the bottom of the social ladder. “Unlike Mr. Obama who transcends old divides, Ms. Mayawati has built her power on demagogic class warfare,” said The News Week recently. In Indian politics, where women’s representation is less than 10 per cent, her chances of becoming the first Dalit prime minister of the largest democracy in the world are about the same as winning a lottery.

Christian expectations

The Christians, a minority of 2.55 per cent in a majority Hindu country, face many odds. The fundamentalist Hindus argue that Hindustan is the holy land of the Hindus, as the holy lands of the Christians and Muslims are in Palestine and Arabia respectively. Muslims and Christians here are, according to Hindutva, foreigners and conquerers who destroyed Hinduism and Indian culture. They have no equal rights here. Missionary activities with a view of conversion are violently opposed.

In August 2008 the Maoists, also known as Naxelities, gunned down a Hindu religious Guru (holy man) for his aggressive conversion programme among the tribals of Orissa in Eastern India. The incident was attributed to the Christians whom he was reconverting to Hinduism during the past few decades. The anti-Christian violence that erupted in Orissa in the following months spilled over to other parts of India, provoking national and international reactions and condemnations.

Against the backdrop of prolonged violence, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI) and other Christian forums have instructed their faithful to vote for non-communal parties. They hope for a government that will protect their fundamental freedom of religion. As the majority of Christians originate from marginalized communities, their developmental aspirations are equally important. However, their political influence is negligible, except in a very few states of India.

Post-election scenario

Manmohan Singh Photo: WikipediaSince 1989 no single party has managed to get a majority on its own, so that there has been a series of coalition governments. The rise of many regional parties, representing different social and ideological interests, and their more than two dozen regional leaders, masquerading as national messiahs, proves that no national ideology or leader is capable of inspiring and enthusing the sub-continent and its 1.2 billion inhabitants.

In spite of the decline of the Congress Party the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty still enjoys significant political influence. Mrs Sonia Gandhi will emerge as the kingmaker. The clean image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a renowned economist but not a crowd puller, might prompt other reluctant regional players of the imagined Third Front and provide the key to open the deadlock of an inconclusive election. Which of the two national parties the regional leaders will be tempted to support will depend on many intricate political compulsions as well as the art of maneuvering.

On the eve of the final phase, odds makers were betting even money that the Congress Party will take at least 150 of the 543 parliamentary seats, a tally that would leave them short of the magical number of 272 seats needed to form a government and select the prime minister on their own, the pundits state this will be higher than the seats the BJP will get. The Congress will then have to “craftily” negotiate with other secular parties to stay in the driver's seat for any coalition that may emerge following the polls. Unfortunately, the coalition partners will be dictated entirely by convenience, not by any ethical and moral issue.

Need for a more rational culture

Indians who want to build a better political culture have to face the fact that it will be an extremely slow process. Caste-ism, communalism and corruption are the plagues of Indian society, and currently the divide is largely between secular forces and communal parties, while other issues are practically non-existent.

An enlightened political culture ultimately means rational behavior based on enlightened ethical principles applied to social issues. Sadly, however, today one is able to mobilize masses of people solely on the emotive issues of caste and religion. In the vast rural areas, where the electorate is largely semi-literate and traditional minded, the major question is how to create a more rational culture.

Improved economic status amongst people as a result of higher education may lead to a shift in thinking, from an emotional base to a more value based thought processes -- a value system where human dignity and justice are the top priorities.

Dr Augustine Kanjamala is a Catholic priest and member of the Divine
Word Missionaries (SVD). He is also director of the Institute of Indian
Culture in Mumbai.


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