Author|Books|Articles/Lectures|Foreign Translations  Ecomonitors Latest News |New Release

Elections in India 2003 - The Subcontinental Dimension


(Article published by the News on Sunday,Karachi at the end of May 2003)

The swearing-in of Dr. Manmohan Singh as the new Prime Minister will mark the end of the Vajpayee era. It brings down the curtain on the high drama that followed the political upheaval brought on by the election results announced on May 13, 2004. In the post-election analyses no stone seems to have been left unturned in looking for the reasons for the decline of the Hindu right wing party on one side and the spectacular reversal of fortunes for the Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi on the other. In the same vein, Sonia Gandhi’s motives in first inching her way forward to the prime ministership and the subsequent decision not to accept the exalted post have also been analysed in great detail by commentators in India and abroad. When the dust – perhaps not the heat generated in the electoral battle – finally settles down the parting remarks of the outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were, in a way, prophetic when he said that while his Party had lost, Indian democracy had won. It is an apt summation of the recent elections by a statesman who has left an inimitable – and indelible - imprint on the art of running coalition governments. An equally pithy conclusion appeared in the French daily, Le Figaro. It captured the essence of what had taken place in India in mid-May 2004 when it said that ‘within a week, India had in any case given a superb lesson in democracy to the world; a democracy whose star will remain Sonia Gandhi, ‘foreigner’ or not’.

While Sonia Gandhi will continue to call the shots – having ensured a vice-like grip on the party that she resurrected virtually single-handedly - attention will shift to Dr. Manmohan Singh. The former Union Finance Minister, author of the post-1991 reforms, is reputedly one of the cleanest figures in Indian politics. A man of innate humility, impeccable manners and unfailing courtesy, he will head the country’s first-ever Congress-led coalition, christened the United Progressive Alliance (an appellation reportedly chosen by Manmohan Singh himself). Several months ago, when he could hardly have dreamed of becoming the Prime Minister – at least in not so short a while - a foreign journalist asked him as to what he considered to be the most important issue before India. Manmohan Singh had no hesitation in replying, ‘the mass poverty of India’.

And herein lies the rub. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the elections because – as per many - it had not paid sufficient attention to the needs of rural India. The incoming dispensation is bound to get its priorities right in this regard, more so since it is dependent upon the left parties for its stability in Parliament. Although the new government might be able to make an initial dent, it will soon hit its head against a hard reality. Hardly any government at the Centre is likely to be in a position to make a meaningful reduction in rural poverty unless it seriously tackles the issue of population proliferation. With 20 million more mouths to feed every year and 9 million fresh entrants into the job market where is the question of being able to usher in poverty reduction for the masses in India or, for that matter, the subcontinent, no matter how sound the government policies. To cite an example, easily comprehensible by lay persons, of the horrendous nature of the runaway population growth on the subcontinent, suffice to say that even if ten thousand persons could be transported to new colonies in far away lands every day of the year, it would not make a significant dent in the growing population mass – most of it low birth weight, begotten by misery-stricken people, living in sub human conditions.

There are many other reasons for good policies generally falling by the way side in the countries of the subcontinent. In India, the sorry state of administration in states like Bihar is a case in point. The Bihar model of governance has become a byword for governance degeneration. Uttar Pradesh and a few other states could also go the Bihar way, if they are not careful. What is true of India applies equally to Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rural poverty and the general decline across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, except in a few isolated pockets, will remain the order of the day unless the governments of these countries give overriding priority to population stabilization, albeit in a non-coercive manner.

(Compulsion of the Chinese variety need not come into it for the simple reason that failure to stabilize population is more on account of organizational infirmity than the many other reasons generally cited. It is estimated that today up to fifty per cent or so of births taking place are the result of unwanted pregnancies). Evidently, meaningful population stabilization may not be achievable at this stage without concomitant emphasis on women’s emancipation and much higher outlays on health, hygiene and education. Higher allocations by themselves, were they to be made in future due to altered priorities, will still not yield the desired results because the administrative instrumentalities of the governments of the subcontinent for implementing these decisions at the business end have been blunted and corrupted to a degree that makes them practically useless as harbingers of change in the positive direction. To compound the problem, many governments, immediately on assuming office or just before elections, resort to unabashedly populist measures that can never be a panacea for poverty reduction. Yet state after state goes in for such populism in spite of fiscal deficits running into double digits.

By the same token, it would be unfair to solely blame the outgoing BJP government for the ills that afflict rural India in UP, Bihar and several other states. In quite a few of these states BJP governments were not in power. Massive central allocations for programmes that could have made a difference, or should have made a difference, were frittered away – the famous fodder scam in Bihar is just one example - by the regional satraps who destroyed the strong foundations of law and order and administration that obtained in these states during the British rule and in the early decades following independence. Latent governance stability existed in most of the states of the Hindi heartland till well into the 1970s. Emergency and the Sanjay Gandhi induced dispensations put paid to good governance. In Pakistan, and subsequently in Bangladesh, the rot had started much earlier. It has gotten institutionalized to a far greater degree than in India. India is fortunate in its diversity, plurality, the strength of institutions like the higher Judiciary, Election Commission and, as demonstrated in the recent elections, the rock-solid deepening of democracy. What continues to astound observers from around the world and the

Indians themselves is the remarkable perceptiveness of the average Indian voter, who with unfailing regularity continues to give the boot - both at the Centre and the States - to governments that fail to perform or to leaders who become too powerful and arrogant. Elections in India are the great levelers. During elections 2004, Indian voters have put all political parties on notice, perform or bite the dust. This remarkable feature of Indian democracy will now have a spillover effect in many other countries of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan. The yearning for true democracy, Indian style, could become irresistible for the people of Pakistan and many other countries that watched the Indian exercise with amazement, exhilaration and a touch of envy. Like the Bollywood films the pull of Indian democracy could prove irresistible. It could sound the death knell for authoritarian regimes on India’s periphery. The change could come sooner than expected.

Contact Us Terms & Conditions Privacy Policy FAQ       site development and maintained by activa softech