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What India's voters didn't do

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Hundreds of millions of Indian voters gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his centrist United Progressive Alliance an unexpected and surprisingly decisive victory in national elections that concluded on the weekend - but what they did not do was just as important.

The assumption that India, with its many divisive communities and ideologies, was doomed to weak coalition governments for the foreseeable future was swept away in ballot boxes across the country.

The voters did not heed the rallying call of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, not even after Muslim terrorists (albeit mostly Pakistanis) attacked hotels and other targets in Mumbai. BJP Leader L.K. Advani, known for his hard-line, disruptive Hindu campaigns against Muslim historical sites in the 1990s, was making his last effort, at 81, to lead a national government.

But Mr. Advani's vision for India was soundly rejected in the elections, in which Mr. Singh's Congress party and his closest allies won 262 seats, falling just short of a majority in the 543-seat Parliament.

Voters also did not flock to politics based on caste, though the system remains strong in political calculations. Mayawati Kumari, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents Dalits (formerly untouchables) who hoped to ride to victory on the votes of the disposed and marginalized who number in the hundreds of millions, found her support reduced even in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, where she is chief minister. Only a few weeks ago, not a few political commentators thought that she had a shot at the prime ministership.

Voters did not bolster the more insular political left, which included in its ranks strong opponents of Indian economic reforms and the nuclear agreement with the United States that opened the door to American technology despite India's refusal to sign safeguard treaties against nuclear weapons proliferation.

In West Bengal, where a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been in power for more than 30 years, leftist candidates for Parliament apparently took a beating from the Trinamool Congress, led by a feisty independent woman, Mamata Banerjee, who supports the mainline Congress party at the national level. In a statement on Saturday, the CPI(M) acknowledged that it and other parties of the left "have suffered a major setback in these elections. This necessitates a serious examination of the reasons for the party's poor performance."

Voters, many of them young people looking for change in a political landscape of old-timers, did not dismiss Mr. Singh, a soft-spoken economist who is 76 and not in robust health. But it is no secret that he may be holding a place for Rahul Gandhi, 38, who won a parliamentary seat handily in this election and is likely to join the Prime Minister's cabinet. Mr. Gandhi's family lineage includes three former prime ministers: his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru; his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi.

Voters did not choose confrontation with neighbours. Mr. Singh has lowered the tone of rhetoric against Pakistan on numerous occasions and is remembered for his statesmanlike meetings with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.

In the Tamil-speaking southern state of Tamil Nadu, politicians were not able to disrupt voting in protest against the Indian government's refusal to intervene in the Sri Lankan army's final push against the Tamil Tigers. In a twist of fate, on the day the Indian votes were counted, the government of Sri Lanka was announcing that the war against the Tigers was effectively over.

Finally, in a country with huge economic, social, health and environmental problems, voters did not split their votes regionally in ways that could have paralyzed any federal government trying to hold together fractious coalitions with no common policies or visions.

People anywhere in the developing world, given a free election, prove over and over how good their instincts are and how shrewdly they vote for what a country needs. For some, their choices get tragically overturned. It happened in Cambodia in 1993. It happened in Zimbabwe last year. It won't happen in India. Losers have stepped aside to do their political postmortems, concessions have been gracious. A new government will begin work this week.

Barbara Crossette is United Nations correspondent for The Nation magazine and a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Asia.

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