India continuity bodes well for allies


POSTED: Saturday, May 23, 2009

Elections in the world's largest democracy have resulted in an emphatic victory for the ruling Indian National Congress Party and its allies, who came just 10 seats short of an absolute majority in India's 552-member Lok Sabha, or “;House of the People.”; As a result, the Congress-led coalition — the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA — can now have a working majority with the help of just a few independents and some of the smaller regional parties. It will no longer need the support of the far-left parties that had frequently hindered reforms during the current parliament, nor of right-wing religious parties. Both the far left and far right were heavy losers in the elections.

Faced with a global economic crisis and a greatly reduced rate of economic growth, Indian voters clearly felt that a continuation of the steady hand of the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was to be preferred to the alternatives. The prime minister himself became a major factor in UPA's victory when the opposition's efforts to characterize him as soft and ineffective backfired, since the electorate considered him to be an honest man and an able administrator. As one Indian Muslim group in Uttar Pradesh said, “;Sixteen banks have failed in the United States but not a single Indian bank has folded up, all because we had Manmohan Singh as prime minister.”;

On Friday, Singh was once again sworn in as prime minister, the first time in a quarter-century that an Indian PM who served a full five-year term will continue in that role.

The role of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crucial in any election in India. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is generally considered to be India's most powerful politician. As the president of the Congress Party, she decided five years ago to concentrate on rebuilding the venerable party rather than seeking the prime minister's office herself. Her son Rahul has also emerged as a very effective and popular campaigner, and is widely expected to become prime minister within a few years, signaling a change to a new generation of Indians. As it is, he may become a minister in the new cabinet.

The absence in this year's campaign of highly emotional religious issues, which have frequently been exploited by right-wing parties, also worked in favor of the secular Congress Party. Further, in a country where more than 70 percent of the population still lives in rural areas, the government's increased expenditures for rural development (about $45 billion) were clearly popular with the electorate.

What can we expect from the UPA government, with its new mandate, in areas of particular concern to the United States and its allies? The far-left parties in the last coalition had strongly opposed and delayed the civilian nuclear power agreement with the United States that was ultimately signed last year. This cooperation is now likely to accelerate, and India's overall trade with the United States is likely to grow further.

India and Pakistan were close to a far-reaching agreement before the Mumbai attacks last November. That process could be renewed now that the more hawkish parties in India have been defeated. The U.S. has been keen that Pakistan move more of its troops from the Indian border to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban along its border with Afghanistan, but this can take place only when India-Pakistan relations are good. Cooperation between the three countries can assist in the flow of energy and other resources from Central and West Asia that are urgently needed for economic development.


Toufiq Siddiqi, an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center, wrote this commentary for the Star-Bulletin. He received his early education in India and Pakistan, and has written extensively on the need for energy and environmental cooperation in South Asia. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)