International Perspective Of Kings & Kingmakersby opinion express June 1, 2013 0 comments
The world’s biggest electorate goes to the polls soon but the 700 million voters won’t decide who runs India. Instead they will elect 543 representatives, belonging to a score or more of parties, who after much horse- trading will then pick a leader. Of course in parliamentary democracy there is no direct election for the prime minister.
The paradox for India is that the casting votes belong to the unelected. India’s political parties are mostly family run – famously, India’s ruling Congress Party is Gandhi personal property. The issue of ownership was dramatically illustrated in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi crisscrossed the country as the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate.
When she unexpectedly won, Mrs Gandhi stepped aside for her loyal aide Manmohan Singh – a respected economist who has never won an election – to take office. A shrewd operator, Mrs Gandhi retained power, wielded from behind the throne. The exceptions to politics as family business are the two major opposition parties – the Bharatiya Janata party and the communists. But faceless men operating in the shadows decide the leaderships of these par ties.
The BJP cannot easily pick a leader not approved by the central command of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the communists take their orders from an unelected politbureau. Because members of political parties cannot stake a claim to the leadership of the major national par ties (the Congress and the BJP) in India, people leave and create their own outfits drawing support from regional power bases. The other option for ambitious politicians is to start up on their own – scooping up votes from the disenchanted. This strategy works best on the local level. The self-styled champion of the lowest castes, Mayawati is essentially a provincial politician, albeit in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
Mayawati’s rise is remarkable given that she hails from the deepest trenches of Indian society: the untouchable caste. Although the Indian constitution abolished untouchability essentially barring the lowest castes from wells and temples – it is rampant in village and small-town India.
However, Mayawati is a troubled figure, mired in claims of corruption and an out sized cult of personality that would embarrass an eastern European communist. Her only political ideology appears to be the pursuit of power.With half a million villages and 60% of people living off the land, India’s politics are rural and often very local. Corruption in politics and the inability of the poor to get a better deal remain concerns. But from the ground up it is the lack of roads, water, electricity and schools as well as complex caste issues that dominate politics.
This again makes the national parties, who are run from the top down, appear irrelevant. Unless they have exceptional local candidates, the big ticket draws are the party leaders who, thanks to India’s linguistic diversity, often cannot mobilize people in their own language. These trends have an unyielding logic. Since 1989, no single party has been able to run India. As national parties shrink, the space is filled by regional parties. With an ever-proliferating array of parochial politicians, the only way to gain power is to compete for votes locally and co-operate nationally to gain power.
The last two governments, both of which lasted a full term, have been anchored by the two national parties. However most think that their executive strength has been sapped by bickering between partners. The caravan of Indian government moves only as fast as its slowest member – which is very slowly indeed.
This year could see the rise of a third force, a grouping of smaller regional parties who would bandy together to form a government. This would only happen if the two national parties lost so heavily they could no longer dominate the parliament. Only the communists and perhaps Mayawati could win big enough to provide the third front with the numbers for government. Because it would be collection of regional interests, settling big national questions is likely to take longer than it does today.
– Randeep Ramesh