The results of the month-long general election in India are noteworthy in several respects. The political shift they represent and their possible effects for the domestic and foreign policies of one of the leading emerging powers in the world will be analyzed over the coming days and months. Here, it is worth looking at some notable aspects to emerge and what they mean. For they will be indicators of the likely conduct of India and what to expect from the country in the next few years.
The United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party, has retained power. Its performance has defied many predictions. With over two-hundred seats won by Congress alone, the alliance finished up just short of an absolute majority in the 543 contested seats for the lower house of parliament. Such a performance is enough to attract support from smaller parties. The governing alliance should have a safe passage through the next five years.
The Congress leadership will be relieved for two other reasons. First, the governing coalition will not have to depend on the Marxists as had been the case in the last parliament. Second, the Marxists themselves have suffered heavy reverses this time and their strength is much diminished. To a considerable degree, this outcome is of their own making. They turned on themselves as the 2009 election approached. Their gamble to confront the governing alliance over India’s relations with the West and over economic policy failed.
The revival of Congress in northern India, once the citadel that gave it control over power, after years of decay is another remarkable feature of this election. Muslims and groups at the bottom rung of India’s Hindu caste system that once formed its core support have returned to Congress in significant numbers. In state after state, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, Congress won more seats than the most optimistic forecasts before the vote. Even in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, strongholds of the Hindu nationalist BJP, the Congress-led alliance did far better than had been expected.
Only Bihar and Orissa, where regional leaders were in power, bucked the trend, depriving Congress of any chance of making significant inroads.
The victory of the United Progressive Alliance, led by Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister, Man Mohan Singh, has come despite widespread anger and criticism of the government following the Mumbai massacre in November 2008. As evidence mounted that a Pakistan-based group was behind the attack, there were calls for military reprisal by India, similar to the American response after 9/11. The BJP accused the government and the prime minister in particular of weakness.
Despite the rhetoric that mirrored the nation’s anger, the decision to refrain from acting impulsively against a nuclear-armed rival was judicious. A war with Pakistan was avoided. Polling went off peacefully throughout India over an extended period. The governing alliance benefited as Muslims and other minorities drew towards Congress. Those leaning towards extreme and caste-based politics have paid the price.
These are comforting developments for much of the international community, especially the United States and Europe. They know who they will be dealing with over the next five years. Man Mohan Singh remains India’s prime minister, with Sonia Gandhi the power holding it all together. The emergence of a new tier of young, educated leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, promises a generation ready to take over the Congress leadership when the time comes. This, too, will be viewed in western capitals with satisfaction. A clear political course generates confidence in the country’s future.
Such a young generation of leaders is necessary as India takes on an increasingly higher profile globally. There is a new administration in the United States and a different government is likely in Britain after polls due within a year. In the present global economic meltdown, emerging powers like India and China must readjust with the new realities. The challenges require continuity, as well as correction.
People like the former Under-Secretary general of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, just elected to parliament, and Rahul Gandhi are the new faces of India on the international stage. In a turbulent region at a time of multiple crises confronting the world, India has emerged after the 2009 election prepared to face both challenges and opportunities awaiting the country.
The above commentary was published by ZNet on 23 May 2009.