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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


A new prime minister enters a radically changed political environment

By Susan Berfield
and Arjuna Ranawana / New Delhi

ATAL BEHARI VAJPAYEE WALKED into the presidential palace on May 15 a poet, philosopher and Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart. After a brief meeting with President Shankar Dayal Sharma, he walked out as India's prime minister designate -- and the secular nation's first pro-Hindu leader. "I have accepted the president's decision with gratitude and thanks," the 69-year-old former foreign minister told waiting reporters.

Vajpayee's announcement ended the first round of a battle for power the likes of which modern India has rarely seen. In one corner stood the BJP and its allies, first-place finishers in a hung Parliament decided in polls April 27, May 2 and May 7. In the other corner were almost all the other parties; their one commonality was their fear or loathing of the BJP's Hindu-nationalist stance. These included the long-ruling Congress party, the center-left alliance known as the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF), and an assortment of smaller regional and lower-caste groups.

Round two of the battle for the soul of India will take place inside and out of the 11th Parliament. A lot is at stake: India's status as a secular state, its economic reforms, even the way its creaky democratic system works. The BJP has until May 31 to patch together a majority in the 545-seat lower house. If it can do that and hold together what is likely to be a fragile coalition, it may be able to change the rules that have shaped, and misshapen, modern India.

The odds are against the BJP on all counts. Each of India's previous coalitions has lasted less than three years. The most recent one, led by Chandra Shekhar in 1991, collapsed after just four months. More significant, most other parties have vowed to defeat a BJP-led coalition. Congress, now the second-largest party in the lower house with 136 seats, says it will vote against a Hindu right coalition the first chance it gets. The NF-LF promises to do the same. If they are to survive, the BJP and its allies may well have to tone down their pro-Hindu rhetoric. That is a potentially positive development for the country, says D.L. Sheth, head of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), "because India cannot tolerate parties with strong, intractable positions."

Whatever the fate of Vajpayee's government, the 1996 elections have already staked a claim as a watershed for the world's biggest democracy. The emerging regional parties are sending fresh voices to New Delhi and they will place new demands on the central government. What is more, the drubbing of the Congress party may signal the end of its near-monopoly on power. Some 49 years after Independence, politics in India seems destined to become less predictable and more democratic than ever before.

The source of the momentum is a population fed up with the status quo. For many Indians, the question of who should come to power was not quite as important as who should not. The voters' message was clear: the Congress has lost its way. In this election, the party's traditional base of lower castes and Muslims scattered their votes, and one of the chief beneficiaries was the BJP.

The voters' disdain for Congress makes it hard to judge the true extent of the BJP's support. Nationally, its share of the popular vote increased from 20.8% in 1991 to around 25% this year. But as the largest single party in Parliament with 160 seats, and with control of four of India's 26 states, including the industrial western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, it seems clear the BJP is now a major national force.

But it is still difficult to argue that it has developed into a truly national party. Election results showed that the BJP's support comes mainly from India's Hindi-speaking western and central plains. The party did increase its presence in the central state of Madhya Pradesh at Congress's expense and made unprecedented gains in the northeastern state of Bihar, a stronghold of the core NF-LF member Janata Dal party. Its regional allies also helped the BJP's make gains in northern Haryana state.

Elsewhere, its showing was poor. Though some say the president was bound by precedent to give the BJP the first chance to form a government, others were incensed. "The BJP is present only in a few states and has not given any public evidence it can prove a majority [in Parliament]," says Syed Shahabuddin, a former MP from Bihar who quit the regional Samata Party after it aligned itself with the BJP. "What the president has done is to give Vajpayee the license to begin horse-trading. Democracy has been reduced to horse-trading."

Not that horse-trading is so unusual in Indian politics. What is new is the openness of the current political jockeying. Except for five years of modern history, political maneuvering has taken place mostly behind the closed doors of Congress party headquarters. But if last week was an indication of things to come, that is changing. The country watched with delight and not a little surprise as leaders of the major parties publicly thrashed out who would stand for prime minister and who shouldn't.

Soon after its electoral defeat began to become apparent, the Congress announced it would not try to form a government. But who would take on the BJP? Twice, Jyoti Basu, the veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), turned down requests to stand as PM in a center-left coalition. It took several breathless days before the NF-LF put forward the Janata Dal's H.D. Deve Gowda, the uncharismatic-but-able chief minister of southern Karnataka state. What made the proceedings even more unusual was that for the first time, the Congress publicly stated it would back a government led by its longtime rival, the Janata Dal. Whether this was just post-election posturing or not, it still hints at the depth of the political changes underway.

The rise of the BJP has been accompanied by the emergence of what some are calling the "fourth force." Until this election, analysts identified three large political groups: the Congress, the BJP and its allies, and the NF-LF. But in post-election maneuvering last week, the number of nonaligned parties and independent MPs became a distinct political organism. With no party dominant, they wielded extraordinary influence. Power brokers, power seekers and their supporters and side-kicks rushed to the capital's five-star hotels for round-the-clock negotiations. There were rumors that the an MP's allegiance was selling for as much as $3 million.

The emergence of special interest groups as political parties should make Indian democracy more open and responsive. And more vulnerable. The priorities -- and discipline -- of the small parties and independents vary, but they are all expected to demand greater attention to such nitty-gritty local issues as access to water and electricity. Regional parties, including several from states with lingering separatist movements like Assam in the northeast and Punjab in the northwest, want more power for local leaders. The caste-based political groups, such as the Samajwadi Party, are expected to lobby for more affirmative-action quotas for lower castes in universities and government jobs.

The trend toward decentralization could prove to be the most significant aspect of this election. The preponderance of power at the center is largely the legacy of Indira Gandhi, who in the 1970s built the Congress party -- and India itself --around herself and her family. Ever since, both government and private studies have called for a looser federal structure that would allow politicians to have a greater say in what happens in their constituencies. The 1996 election has sped up that movement.

"The rise of regional parties shows that politics has kept pace with the social reality that states need more power," says Sheth of the CSDS. Voters increasingly identify with regional rather than national parties because they are more concerned about local issues. The shift of such groups from the margins of power to the center will no doubt shake up New Delhi in the short term. But it is also likely to strengthen India's stability in the long run, Sheth says, because by gaining political power, these formerly secessionist regional groups will become less likely to resort to violence as they press for their rights.

As other parties rise, the Congress may be down, but it is certainly not out. With 136 seats in the new Parliament, it can still act as kingmaker if -- or when -- a BJP alliance falls. Much could depend on who leads the Congress into the future. Though its current president, P.V. Narasimha Rao, resigned as prime minister May 10, he managed to retain his position as Congress parliamentary leader, at least temporarily, at a party meeting two days later.

Many in Congress blame Rao for the party's electoral bruising. Several of his tactical campaign decisions backfired badly, hastening the party's defeat. The worst was an alliance in Tamil Nadu, where Rao chose to link up with the megalomaniac chief minister J. Jayalalitha and her plummeting AIADMK. The move split the Congress apparatus in the southern state and probably cost the ruling party at least 20 crucial parliamentary seats. Inter-party disputes over Rao's leadership also lost Congress precious support in central Madhya Pradesh. Though two rebel groups won only six seats, their presence may have taken away enough votes to reduce the mother party's tally by another 18 members.

Congress's ills, however, are far more chronic. The shocking assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 national campaign unleashed a "sympathy wave" that probably saved the party from a disastrous showing back then. The tragedy served to cover up just how deep the Congress had sunk since its glory days as modern India's uniting movement. For years, the Congress had promised the poor, lower castes economic and social progress. And year after year, it largely failed to deliver. "Congress lost touch with the minorities and the disadvantaged sections of society, which were our traditional support base," says Mani Shankar Aiyar, a defeated Congressman from Tamil Nadu.

Rao did launch economic reforms that aimed to put India on the fast-track to development. The changes were praised outside of India but criticized within the country for giving foreign firms too much freedom, and for slighting the needs of India's huge underclass. New Delhi's efforts at spin control were dismal. Admits Subodh Khant Sahai, a senior Congress official: "There has been a communication gap between us and the people."

With the Congress out of power, the future course of economic liberalization looks less certain. The Bombay bourse stumbled late last week as the indecisive election results were announced; it remained in the doldrums for days after. But the president of the nation's top business grouping, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, saw the results as a vote for liberalization. Deepak Banker told Asiaweek the fact that the "pro-reform" BJP and Congress have emerged as the biggest parties in Parliament indicates that "there is a clear mandate for the continuation of economic reform."

If this is true, then voters may have made more progress toward a full-fledged, mature democracy in this election than in the last 10. They cast out the faltering Congress but supported what is arguably the party's most important long-term legacy, economic reform. They brought in the BJP, but almost ensured that its edge will be dulled. However muddled politics may be during the coming years, it could be a fair price for the benefits India's growing democracy will bring.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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