INDIAN ELECTION 2009

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The Indian election will be an impressive spectacle, with 543 parliamentary seats and 4,145 assembly seats being contested in a rolling poll over four weeks from the 16th of April to early May. India has 28 states many of which are the size of a large European nation, with 20 official languages and a demography that covers seven major religions and more than three thousand social groups. This makes the Indian election not only the biggest but also the most diverse exercise in democracy in the world. Furthermore, for the first time, the polls will be all-electronic affair, with the deployment of 1.36 million advanced voting machines which is attracting interest abroad including in the US and Europe.

Now that’s just the process. If we look at the forces in play during the election, the major ones include regionalism, the caste system and finally the internal threat from Maoist guerrillas.

The reality is that the country has only two national parties – Congress and the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which can only come to power on the back of coalitions with regional parties. For example the governing Congress heads a coalition of 13 parties which at the last election replaced a 23-party coalition led by the BJP. This makes government at the centre incredibly difficult, as the compromises required to maintain the ruling coalition can paralyse government from Delhi, leaving the regional parties to rule their fiefdoms much as they desire.

Then we have casteism. A large part of the explanation of the loss of appeal of the national pan-Indian parties is explained by the existence of the thousands of social groups whose political allegiances are reflected in parties that represent their particular social interests. The best example of this is the Bahujan Samaj Party which represents the Dalits who form the “untouchables” at the bottom of India’s caste system, particularly in South India. Their leader is the populist Mayawati who is set to play the kingmaker in this year’s election, and she invariably backs the party at the centre that looks the easiest to blackmail.

And finally we have the threat posed to the elections by the Maoist guerrillas, otherwise known as the Naxalites, who operate in 13 out of the 28 states of India and have control of large swathes of the country. They pose a major security threat, to the extent that India will not be hosting their lucrative IPL Twenty20 cricket tournament as the government can not provide enough security to cover both that event and the month-long general election campaign. The actions of the Naxalites, who are violently opposed to the election, will affect the turnouts in the states in which they operate.

This all makes for an interesting time over the coming month. Watch this space, as we will no doubt see many twists and turns during the election, and unpredictable events during the four weeks from the 16th of April can influence the eventual outcome.