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India's Great Election Road Show

May 12, 2009

by Jyoti Malhotra
Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER)
May 11, 2009

NEW DEHLI -- A priest in a Shiva temple deep
inside the Gir Forest in Gujarat made the news
recently when he became the only man in India to
vote in a polling station set up solely for him.
The quirky and the sublime are all part of the
great Indian election road show, now wilting in
the face of incredible temperatures soaring across the Hindi heartland.

As many as 714 million men and women will end up
voting when the five-phase election ends on May
13, but one thing is already clear in this
massive exercise: The first, that despite the
globalizing power of the fitful economic reforms
that have been underway for the better part of 17
years (they began when Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh was finance minister in 1992), India
largely remains inward looking. If the rest of
the world is obsessed with the economic downturn,
India is still largely consumed with stories as they unfold within.

All this while events evolve dramatically in
India’s own neighborhood. In Pakistan the
government has ceded political space to the
Taliban, in Sri Lanka the pro-Sinhala government
of Mahinda Rajapaksa refuses to allow
humanitarian aid for Tamil noncombatants claiming
it comes in the way of its war on the Tamil
Tigers, in Nepal tensions between the new
democrats and self-styled Maoists over the
sacking of the army chief have reached a
fever-pitch, and in Bangladesh the newly
installed government of Sheikh Hasina has been
gravely challenged by a barely suppressed mutiny
within its paramilitary forces.

The Indian idea of democracy goes back to Harappa
and Mohenjo-Daro (even though, ironically, these
great cities of the Indus Valley civilization are
now located in Pakistan, which has spent 36 years
out of its own 62 years of independence under
army rule), it continues to be confounded by a
caste and feudal nature, and is characterized by political dynasties.

And yet, dynasties must also fight for the right
to be elected every five years, especially since
the sheen wears off somewhat in between and there
are others vying for the same spot. At a recent
rally by Mayawati, India’s low-caste leader and
chief minister of Uttar Pradesh province
(population 190 million) who is now aiming to be
prime minister, I noticed the thousands of women
and men who had come to hear her in the blazing
afternoon sun were treating her like a star. They
craned their necks to see her, raised their palms
as if in blessing, and roared back their support when she asked for it.

Fact is, Mayawati is giving the family of Sonia
Gandhi -- her son, Rahul, is a key figure in the
Congress party, while daughter Priyanka is
campaigning for her mother and brother—a run on
the idea of dynasty. While the Gandhi charisma
runs deep, the family is keenly aware that they
cannot take the voter for granted. A variation of
the slogan “India is Indira,” after then prime
minister Indira Gandhi (and Sonia’s
mother-in-law) went to war against Pakistan in
1971 and helped midwife Bangladesh, would be anathema in the country today.

The thing about democracy, however imperfect, in
India is that it has come to be impregnated with
the idea of ballot-box revenge. Twenty-five years
after anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, following the
assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the
Congress party has been forced to drop two
leaders allegedly involved in the rioting from
contesting the current elections, because of
continuing public outrage. The Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party has never been able to
live down its role in fomenting Hindu-Muslim
tensions in 1992 which led to the demolition of
the 16th century Babri mosque—which is why the
BJP’s prime ministerial candidate LK Advani will always be suspect.

According to Mahesh Rangarajan, a political
scientist, "Democracy prevents the Indian state
from resorting to amnesia, and while it may not
always secure justice for the victims, it allows
them to talk about it.” Unlike Tibet, Mr.
Rangarajan said, which has still not been settled
despite the massive development that has been
undertaken by China over the last 50 years,
India’s democratic experiment allows the
resolution of religious and ethnic tensions, even if it’s imperfect.

Even in Gujarat, where the BJP’s Narendra Modi
has won election after election on the plank of
"development," in the hope that public memory
will forget his role in the 2002 pogrom in which
nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed. But the media
won’t let him forget. Mr. Modi has walked out of
interviews when asked about the Gujarat riots and
made fun of the “pseudo-secular” opposition, but
journalists stubbornly return to the question
each time. Now the Supreme Court has ordered that
riots cases be "fast-tracked" because their malingering is a denial of justice.

Meanwhile, as the elections draw to a close, the
debate on economic liberalization with Indian
characteristics continues. Is, for example, the
$15 billion government waiver of rural debt good
or bad economics? The fact that the Congress-led
government determinedly pushed reforms to enable
around 9% annual GDP growth in recent years so as
to be able to service loans for farmers during
these critical elections means that economics can also be good politics.

Now for the results on May 16, when new rulers
incarnated by the people will hope to rule India.

Jyoti Malhotra is a free-lance journalist based in New Delhi
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