India’s Congress party has pulled off a stunning election victory. In a monthlong, multi-stage parliamentary ballot, the party produced its best electoral performance in over a quarter of a century. Even more important, when the seats of its main coalition partners are added to its total, Congress is just short of having a majority in the legislature. This could upend Indian politics by breaking the grip of bosses from small parties that exercised undue influence because of the need for broad coalitions.
Most significantly, India’s Communist Party is no longer in a position to veto government policies. It is a resounding show of support for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family, which is synonymous with Congress.
As India entered the electoral season, most observers expected Mr. Singh’s government to take a beating. The country suffered one of the worst terror attacks in its history last year. The region appears increasingly unstable: Pakistan is battling its own Islamic insurgency; the government in Nepal has collapsed; and Afghanistan is teetering again on the brink of chaos. Playing to that insecurity, the main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) played up its image as a strong party ready to put national strength — if not national security — at the forefront of its campaign. Posters showed a party leader in the gym, no less — a stark contrast to Mr. Singh who recently had open heart surgery.
But the prime minister proved to be the stronger candidate. With turnout reaching 60 percent (exceeding the last ballot five years ago), Congress claimed 206 of Parliament’s 543 seats, a net gain of 61. With its coalition partners, Congress has 260 seats. It can deliver a majority with the support of independents and a few small parties. The BJP coalition won just 160 seats. Far from being the weak man of Indian politics, Mr. Singh is the first incumbent prime minister in nearly four decades to win an election.
Much of the credit goes to his economic policies. A former economics minister, Mr. Singh has pressed for market reform and opening. The result has been five straight years of impressive growth; last year India registered 7.3 percent growth, following a 9 percent expansion in 2007 and 8.5 percent the year before. Equally important has been an economic strategy that targeted India’s rural areas. The BJP, then in charge of the government, lost the 2004 elections despite an impressive economic performance because a majority of voters felt that the gains from growth had not been shared by all Indians. Congress was not going to make that mistake.
Another factor behind Congress’ win was Mr. Rahul Gandhi, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the latest in the line of that political dynasty. He was a tireless campaigner, reaching out to young voters and members of the “untouchable” caste. Guided by his mother, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, he is slowly emerging as the next generation of that family to claim political leadership. Mr. Gandhi demurs when asked about his ambitions. Most Indians believe that Mr. Singh is a temporary occupant of the seat of power, while Mrs. Gandhi manages party politics and prepares the way for her son’s ascension.
The new arithmetic of Indian politics will have potentially profound consequences. India’s Communist parties have had a veto over economic and foreign policies. That appears to have ended. This will not produce radical shifts in policy, but it does move the center of gravity toward the right in Indian politics.
Congress’ gains also undercut the power of small narrowly focused parties to dictate to the coalition leader. These are often single-issue parties, dominated by a single person with a less than shining reputation.
Remarkably, however, the results may not lead to significant departures in Indian policy. It is true that the government might have gone further down the path of economic reform if it had not been hobbled by the presence of Communist parties in the ruling coalition. But the government’s record and the campaign indicate that Congress knows that it must better the lives of all Indians.
While much of the world is enamored of the promise of the “new India,” more than two-thirds of the population still lives on less than $2 a day. A reform agenda that goes too far, too fast, will merely repeat the mistakes of the BJP government that preceded it. On the other hand, the government must now worry about ballooning deficits as the global economy slows. It will be a difficult balancing act.
In foreign policy, the government is likely to continue its rapprochement with the United States, a policy that had alienated the Communists and driven BJP supporters to argue that the government was giving up India’s independence. This also opens the doors to stronger ties with Japan, a focus of our government’s diplomatic outreach. Those links will be more important than ever as South Asia copes with the many firestorms in that region. India’s election better enables that country to play a leading role in that effort.
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