India faces uncertain path after election

Friday, May 15, 2009 | 3:25 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The vote for a new parliament in India, by far the world’s largest democracy, ended Wednesday. It took five weeks to conduct, and an estimated 428 million cast their ballots. Once the results are announced on Saturday, the leaders of the two dominant parties — the Indian National Congress, the party of Mohandas K. Gandhi and now led by Sonia Gandhi, and Bharatiya Janata (BHP), a Hindu party that has risen to challenge Congress over the past 20 years — will start scrambling to put together a coalition. Neither is expected to win a majority to form the government on its own, but exit polls show that the Congress Party has a slight lead. A so-called “Third Front,which is made up of left-wing and regional parties, most prominently the Communist Party, could also be an important factor. All told, there are 1,055 political parties involved in the balloting. Why did this election take so long? Is it an ideological or logistical problem?

Seema Mustafa, editor, Covert Magazine, New Delhi, India: The Election Commission of India is responsible for the election. Elections used to be conducted all over the country in one day. The commission says they need more security in the states, particularly in areas of insurgencies or other communal reasons. I feel this can be shortened to 10 days, or two weeks at the most. We have been without effective government for over five weeks. A lot of developments have occurred in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and there is no government in India to respond or react.

Loory: How does election campaigning compare with the United States?

Mehul Srivastava, Delhi correspondent, BusinessWeek, New Delhi, India: American elections are incredibly tame compared to India. In America, a candidate speaks for 20 minutes, then leaves and is able to reach a lot of people because the newspapers cover it. In India, the vast majority of people who vote are in rural areas; they don’t read newspapers; they barely have televisions and there is no radio news. If a new person is trying to get elected, she or he must hold massive rallies. A film star running for election drew close to 800,000 people in Southern India. A lot of people go to these rallies because they’re entertaining; there is music and food. The bigger the rally, the more powerful you are. It is a chaotic celebration of Indian democracy.

Loory: But are they discussing the important issues of India there?

Srivastava: It is difficult for reform-minded politicians to get elected. The economy has done relatively well, but has not trickled down to the people who actually vote. In urban areas, like New Delhi or Mumbai, income has gone up, but if you live in a village in the central plains, your income hasn’t gone up. Forty-six percent of kids in India under the age of five are still malnourished. These people are voting on local issues, like electricity and roads. Reform-minded parties talking about bringing free market capitalism are far away from their reality.

Loory: In a parliamentary democracy, individuals are elected from separate constituencies. Therefore, issues must vary greatly across regions and from urban to rural, correct?

Mustafa: Some issues run throughout the country: development, poverty, secularism and economic and political justice. These elections are full of issues, more so than in my previous 20 years of covering elections. Individual personalities are not able to get votes, and every constituency is very tight. But instead of being articulated by the so-called national parties, these issues are coming from the states.

Loory: How could this election impact Indian/Pakistani relations?

Qasim Nauman, assistant editor, the Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan: Attention on this election has been subdued because of internal problems in Pakistan, with conflict in the Swat Valley and the Taliban. But, India-Pakistan relations are being carefully monitored. It is all about mutual fear and interests on both sides, which include the economy, security, terrorism, especially after the Mumbai attacks that have potentially frozen the positive dialogue that was taking place. The president of Pakistan recently stated in Washington, D.C., that Pakistan doesn’t have a fight to pick with India; we want peace and commercial linkages. Yet India rightly has concern about the terrorist cells in Pakistan. No real action will be taken in the dialogue until the Indian government is formed.

Loory: After the new government is formed, how will it handle Pakistani relations?

Srivastava: It is very difficult to predict which way the government is going to go. Until 1947, India and Pakistan were the same country. It was divided by the British based on there being more Muslims in Pakistan and more Hindus in India. Since then, there has never been a consistent policy about engagement or antagonism with Pakistan. The Congress Party is more moderate, but the BJP made more serious peace efforts with Pakistan. To some extent, both countries use the other as an effective  boogeyman, to continue spending money on defense and nuclear weapons. Pakistan has not been an issue in these elections.

Loory: Have there been other foreign policy issues, like relations with China or the Sri Lankan situation?

Srivastava: India sees itself as an economic miracle; the economy has grown about 10 percent a year, but it is overshadowed by China. China comes up quite often in election speeches. People say China is stronger, and we need a stronger defense because the Chinese have made claims to territory. This is also a boogeyman tactic because these claims are relatively old and are not being actively pursued. A more effective argument is that China has done more to lift people out of poverty than India. India’s biggest employer and second-biggest export is textile (with) sweatshops where people are making clothes and shoes for people in the west.

Loory: What about the Sri Lankan situation?

Srivastava: The Sri Lankan situation, like the Nepal situation, is complicated because the Indian government has effectively vanished with everyone out campaigning. In Nepal, a Maoist prime minister resigned because he couldn’t get his ex-guerrillas, who fought violently against the government, into a proper army. The Indians see this as straight from China. In Sri Lanka, it is the same thing. The Chinese foreign ministry made a statement about how Sri Lanka and Nepal have been partners and they want to make them reasonably independent. That is all seen as code language for supporting movements in those countries that are anti-India.

Loory: How will a government be formed after the results are revealed? Either the Congress Party or the BJP will have to build a coalition involving perhaps 20 or more parties. Is that right?

Mustafa: Yes. There are three formations on the table. One is the Congress led formation, the United Progressive Alliance, which is shaky and breaking apart at the moment. Second is the BJP led coalition, which was in power previously, and sat in opposition recently. There is also a new coalition this time, with the regional parties as well as the Left, which is expected to get the least amount of seats compared to the other two. All three of these formations are in talks with the regional parties to get more partners and support, so they can make a bid for the government. This is going to be really arithmetic, an election after the people have voted, in the sense that all the parties will be trying to break regional parties from the other. We are expecting some chaos before a clear formation finally emerges. It can be any of the three.

Loory: India demonstrates that democracy can work in a huge, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society, that there are problems that make it very fragile and different from democracy as we know it in industrialized countries with strong democratic traditions.


Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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