The Biggest Gamble in History?

Between 16 April and 13 May 2009 national elections are being held in India. In what happens to be the largest electoral exercise in the democratic world, a 714 million-strong electorate will vote over 5 phases in 543 parliamentary constituencies spread across 28 states and 7 union territories. The principal adversaries are the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Indian National Congress; the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party; and the Third Front – a coalition of regional and communist parties. The main issues are internal security (particularly, in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack and the growing Maoist insurgency), widening socio-economic inequality and regional disparity, rising assertiveness among the majority and corresponding alienation among minorities.

Flawed as it may be, Indian democracy’s continued existence defies historical precedent and conventional wisdom. When they were first held in 1952, Indian national elections were called the “biggest gamble in history”. 57 years and 14 editions later, the only gamble around them remains political and not existential. It is important to appreciate that this diverse country routinely holds reasonably free and fair elections across its vast length and breadth and is interesting to understand why and for whom the Indian electorate votes. As a group which seeks to celebrate India and bring together not only Indian students and students of Indian origin but anyone who is interested in this diverse country, the Oxford Indian Society (OIS) launched its online debate series with a three-week long focus on the Indian elections. It debated the pros and cons of coalition centred politics in the Indian electoral scene, discussed the presence or absence of clear and responsible ideological divide among Indian political parties, and deliberated upon the desirability of left-wing politics and its impact on governance and policy-making.

The OIS debate provoked some searching questions: Historically, Indian elections have tended to be as much about good governance as about identity politics. What should a democracy’s pivot be – aspirations towards socio-economic representation of hitherto marginalised groups or functions towards deliverance of good governance? A zealous pursuit of identity-bound representative character by regional parties and their coalitions has certainly brought them closer to power and policy-making but has also turned Indian politics into a completely amoral business of bargaining for power and benefits. For Indian polity the question that looms large is whether it desires a society derived from the patterns of the exercise of political power or a polity reflective of its varied socio-cultural fabric?

Second, while this so-called ‘battle for egalitarianism’, is being waged using the instruments of electoral democracy, has become the dominant thrust in Indian politics, it is pertinent to ask whether there is room for ideology-politics as opposed to identity-politics in a responsible national landscape? In a parliament of 543 seats, 272 are required for majority. Since 1989 a socially fractious and economically divided electorate has regularly voted indecisively resulting in a fragmented politics of coalitions. The current UPA government is a coalition of 13 parties spearheaded by the Congress with 151 seats while the single-largest opposition party, BJP, has 142 seats. The real power thus lies with the regional parties. Any government then will be a delicate balance act amidst the compulsions of coalition politics.

And finally, on the economic front: Is increased state intervention desirable and if so, then how is it to be financed? Can India abandon fiscal management without reverting to isolationism? How does a developing country with serious resource constraints prioritize spending on alleviating poverty without wreaking systemic havoc? As the largest nation-state in world’s least integrated and most unsettled region, India, as ever, remains a fascinating – in turn exhilarating and frustrating – prospect. On the one hand, it has a growing poor population (400 million), rotten infrastructure, dreadful public services of health and education, cumbersome labour and land laws, and ranks 4th in the list of Asia’s most corrupt nations. On the other, it boasts of the third annual growth rate in Asia over the last five years (behind China and Japan), an increasing employment rate, a healthy forex reserve, a young population (half of them under 25), and fast-growing manufacturing and service sectors (driving the 300 million strong urban, middle class and its consumption boom) – the players of which are now getting world-wide recognition viz. the Tatas. Whether one characterises India as a tiger on a pacy prowl or an elephant on a sluggish grind, the numbers to bolster either image can be bewildering, hence the importance of the coming elections.

The OIS debates archives can be accessed at http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ois/debates.html.