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Political circus plays across land


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POSTED: Monday, June 08, 2009

Elections are a circus anywhere. In India, because of the enormous size of the population, they are especially so. A circus on a cosmic scale. Vibrant, comical, inspiring, frightening. The just-concluded national elections to the federal legislature—staggered over weeks because of the size of the operation—take you smack into such contradictions. We know by now that the prime minister will continue to be the mild mannered intellectual Manmohan Singh; but droves of bona fide criminals have been voted to power including from Singh's party.

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Talk to voters across the country and you will note the forces pulling in different directions. In New Delhi in the north, the cab driver yearningly singles out vikas or progress as a factor. Meanwhile, in Gujarat in the west, the academic dismisses with irritation questions about the baleful influence of the state's chief minister, indicted in the worst violence against Muslims in the recent past. The chief minister's Hindu right party has done poorly nationally but well here. In Chennai in the south, the journalist, cynical from decades of covering the powerful, insists on the paramount importance of money in the elections—fortunes were spent on campaigning and now must be recouped.

So goes the circus.

The circus surprised most observers by returning the United Progressive Alliance led by the Indian National Congress to power with increased strength. Most expected a hung parliament, with neither of the two main political alliances earning a large lead in seats over its rival. Instead, the United Progressive Alliance increased its share of parliamentary seats and came within a whisker of achieving majority on its own. The Congress, the party at the center of the alliance, did especially well, including in areas of the country where it was seen as being in permanent decline. This unexpected result has led newspapers to talk of a resurgence of the Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, widely seen as the men who led India to independence in 1947.

The Congress is of course jubilant, but a careful appraisal of the elections might sober it. Even with its increased strength the Congress is dependent on smaller parties to achieve majority in Parliament. While freed to exert authority in a way that it could not in the previous government, the Congress remains beholden to its electoral allies. Unlike the first three decades after India's independence, when the Congress dominated the political scene relatively unchallenged, now the Congress has no hope of achieving power on its own for the foreseeable future. As these elections confirm, India is firmly in the age of coalition governments.

What does the return of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance portend? Most obviously: continuity. The UPA government's strategy of “;inclusive growth”;—growth oriented liberalization with an eye on income generation for the weakest sectors of Indian society—seems to have met with cautious favor. Simultaneously, voters seem indifferent to the two most important foreign policy issues—India's growing strategic proximity to the U.S. and the tensions in India-Pakistan relations following the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Opposing parties tried to make issues out of both with little success.

Despite heady talk of great power status, India continues to face daunting problems of poverty, public health, education and infrastructure. The elections suggest a hunger for vikas and effective governance, and a tiredness with the politics of division and religious hatred. The voters have spoken clearly enough over the din of the circus. Will the UPA hear and stay true to its promise? The next few years will tell.

In India, the circus of elections is routinely succeeded by the circus of governance. The just-concluded elections would seem to suggest India's voters don't mind as long as there is more to the circus than spectacle.