Thursday, April 16, 2009

the greatest show on earth

Voting begins in India — yes, the world's largest democracy. Here's what you need to know.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
April 16, 2009

NEW DELHI — Half circus, half marathon, India's mammoth general election began Thursday, with some 140 million voters casting their ballots in a free-for-all that has so far defied pundits for a prediction.

After a campaign season that saw candidates climbing trees, hefting dumbbells, and delivering vitriolic speeches to draw attention, on the first day of polling, election officials transported electronic voting machines across mountain creek beds on horseback while candidates rolled up to file their nomination papers in imported luxury cars, rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages — even riding atop a funeral bier shouldered by supporters. It is little wonder that local reporters have taken to calling India's elections “the greatest show on earth.”

Apart from all the tamasha – or hoopla – the sheer scale of the enterprise is daunting. Because India is fighting simmering wars with Maoist rebels, Kashmiri separatists, and a host of other groups that routinely threaten violent retaliation if voters ignore calls to boycott the polls — and to curb the once-widespread practice of “booth capturing” by party strongmen — the election will take place in five phases between April 16 and May 13 so that some 2 million soldiers and police officers can be deployed to protect voters.

More than 700 million voters will eventually cast their ballots, choosing candidates from among more than 30 different political parties, before the results are announced May 16. And with the two main national parties — the Indian National Congress led by Sonia Gandhi and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Lal Krishna Advani — waning in influence, there's a bigger role than ever for bit players and would-be king- and queen-makers of all shapes and sizes.

“What this election is going to decide is the future of coalition politics, and to what extent parties other than the Congress and the BJP can position their own alliance system,” said political analyst Praful Bidwai.

The contest already has dished up some interesting surprises. Varun Gandhi, a descendant of Jawaharlal Nehru, who defected from the family bastion Congress Party, emerged as the poster boy of the BJP's anti-Muslim agenda. Sajjad Gani Lone became the first major Kashmiri separatist leader to enter the electoral fray. And the Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26-odd Kashmiri separatist parties, for the first time decided not to issue a call to boycott the polls. Nobody knows what happens next.

Burned by the Congress Party's unexpected victory in 2004, few pundits are willing to make any predictions about this contest, which looks to be decided on a bewildering array of local issues in the absence of any galvanizing national debate. But an ear to the ground verifies that most poll watchers tacitly agree with the forecast laid out by local bookies, who have, naturally, been unable to resist laying odds on the outcome, though all forms of gambling are illegal here.

On the eve of phase one, odds makers were offering even money that the Congress will take at least 142 of the 543 parliamentary seats, a tally that would leave them more than 100 seats short of the majority needed to form a government and select the prime minister on their own, but put them in the driver's seat for any coalition that may emerge following the polls.

Despite the economic downturn and the previous government's perceived failures in its response to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the odds on the BJP are less favorable, with bookies offering even money that the Hindu nationalist party will win around 120 seats. The other possibility, though it appears remote, is that a so-called “third front” led by a block of communist parties and regional satraps could cobble together a majority piecemeal — something that has only happened once before in Indian history.

“We've only had one such experience in the past, in '96 to '98,” said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan. “Can one look at a coalition where the center of gravity shifts toward the smaller parties? Or will there be a coalition consisting primarily of the smaller, regional parties, supported by one of the larger parties? Either way, I think there is a shift of the center of gravity that is an underlying issue of this election.”

So far, though, it is also difficult to gauge exactly what is at stake. Recent electoral contests between the Congress and BJP have been seen here as a struggle between the model of secularism favored by the Congress — which offers a vision of a multicultural India that protects and supports the religious and ethnic practices of its diverse population — and the BJP's ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which in its strongest form advocates the suppression of the minority Muslim population and the conversion of India into a Hindu state.

However, this contest has so far suggested that whatever the beliefs of its hard core supporters, the BJP has decided to soft-pedal its more radical policies with an eye to wooing future coalition partners from among regional parties that lack strong ideologies but are uncomfortable with the open espousal of anti-minority policies.
Similarly — though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has accused the BJP's Advani of “weeping in a corner” while the mob he whipped into a frenzy destroyed a historic mosque and Sonia Gandhi has accused him of taking orders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a proto-fascist Hindu outfit with millions of members — the voters have heard this material so many times they know the script by heart.

As a result, the real battle will be fought at the ground level, on myriad local issues ranging from the suicides of debt-laden farmers to what road or bridge gets built where. And the result could throw up one of the most fractured and diverse coalitions ever to govern this limitlessly complex country.

“I think in some ways it is one of the most unpredictable elections that India has ever seen,” Bidwai said. "The regional parties and the state-level and sub-state parties now have something like 36 percent of the vote, whereas 25 years ago they had just about 10 or 11 percent. They have emerged as far more important, and that introduces a new kind of uncertainty.”

Some worry that a weak coalition government could be disastrous for India, coming in the midst of an economic crisis that calls for swift and decisive action. Manmohan Singh himself (a trained economist whose primary concern has always been India's rate of economic growth) on Wednesday told members of the Editors Guild of India that growing regionalism — and the weak coalitions it engenders — should be seen as a problem on par with terrorism and Maoist extremism.

But while it is true that past governments formed without a dominant party have crumbled swiftly, making an endless season of polls and repolls a disturbing possibility, experts point out that some short-term governments lacking clear popular mandates have been instrumental in pushing through crucial policies.

The coalition government led by the populist Janata Dal party's VP Singh, for instance, managed to push through a resolution on the demolition of the Babri mosque and a society-defining expansion of the job quota system to include the so-called “other backward classes” as well as the erstwhile untouchables, while Atal Behari Vajpayee's 13-day government of 1998 pushed ahead with India's first nuclear weapons test.

“Of course, that kind of government will be able to focus on only one or two or three tasks,” Rangarajan said. “It can't spread its energy across the board. But I have no doubt that the economy will be right at the top of the agenda [whoever wins]. Whichever government you have, there will have to be a broad stimulus, and I think there you will see some continuity.”

For now, all that is left to do is wait and watch — and place a call to the bookie.