Foreign Affairs

India’s acid test

Electoral fever is at an all-time high in India with its “crucial”’ five states being completely engrossed by the assembly polls. Among the five, voting in Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhanda has already taken place. The much awaited polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP) — also one of the Indian states bordering Nepal — are scheduled to begin on Feb 8 and will go through seven different phases, ending on March 3, the date on which the western Indian state of Goa will also be testing its political leadership.

These polls, which follow the recent public outcry on issues of corruption and governance, are being portrayed as the reflection of the national mood that could prevail over the upcoming 2014 parliamentary elections. These polls for sure will serve as an acid test for the scam-ridden United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which has been under attack from the opposition as well as from the civil movement led by Anna Hazare and company.

Undoubtedly, polls in all the states are equally significant whatever the political stakes may be — from 10 Janpath (Sonia Gandhi’s residence and of course currently the undeclared power centre of the Indian polity) to the incumbent rulers in the Lucknow Durbar. The UP polls, which could possibly alter the coalition in New Delhi, are many a time portrayed as “agniparikchya” for Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, who has been zeroing in on this hugely populated state for quite some time now.

Quite often being seen as a future prime ministerial candidate of Congress, his investment of political energy in UP will definitely be an acid test for endorsement of Rahul to that high post. Optimism of positive RG (abbreviation for Rahul Gandhi as used by the Indian media) effects in UP is as high as the fears of his charm being washed away akin to what happened in Bihar last year. Congress succumbed to Nitish Kumar’s party despite Rahul’s vigorous efforts to revive the party’s hold in Bihar.

To the next point, if political pundits are to be believed, there is a huge possibility of an alteration in the equation of the ruling coalition at the centre after the UP polls. Mulyam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress Party are projected to be the frontrunners in the UP polls, but without the needed majority to form the government. Congress is then expected to support SP to form the government in UP in return for the latter’s support to the UPA at the centre. The SP with 22 parliamentarians could be the best replacement for the current coalition partner Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress which has been the juggernaut in the government’s effort to bring in huge policy changes.

While different assumption theories are doing the rounds, a poignant picture of dirty politics based on sops to woo voters in this part of the region has triggered worries among every concerned individuals. The parties seem to be without interest to do

away with the idiosyncrasy of depending on populist means of freebies, quotas and sub-quotas which have also been the very characteristics of the Nepali polity.

To put it in the words of a leading Indian daily The Times of India, the recent campaign strategies seem almost a sliding back of the positive trend generated by the polls in Bihar, and more recently, West Bengal where fruitful discussions on critical issues like good governance, education and infrastructure had found abundant space. The election manifestos of the major parties fighting the elections in UP are enough to gauge the backtracking from such a trend. Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (though it is yet to release a manifesto) are selling dreams especially targeted at minorities and Other Backward Classes (OBC) who have frequently been used as vote banks.

The parties are roping in Muslim clerics and leaders and OBC champions to endorse them. The country’s top technocrat during Rajiv Gandhi’s administration Sam Pitroda has been the OBC face of Congress during Rahul’s campaigns. Scenes of Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, endorsing the Samajwadi Party or celebrated filmmaker Muzaffar Ali appearing before the masses for Congress have been a regular phenomena.

Meanwhile, the saffron Bharatiya Janata Party has even promised to establish a Ram Temple on the disputed site of Babri Masjid’s demolition. Congress, which is deemed a more secular party, has also tried to rake up that dead issue by mentioning the Babri Masjid dispute though it has promised an equitable solution.

This type of politics does not stop here. In an apparent aim to please voters in UP, the Congress-led UPA government recently decided to allocate a 4.5 percent sub-quota for minorities within the 27 percent reservation for OBC. Nobody denies the fact that the grievances of backward classes and minorities should be addressed, but the trend of political parties stopping paying attention to fulfil their promises after winning the elections has raised serious questions about their intentions.

The observation by social commentator Amitabh Mukhopadhyay on the UP elections is quite interesting. He said, “The uniformly unimaginative manifestos of the parties offer little by way of economic or social programmes, but only sharpen the communal divide — across both castes and religions — make tall promises of employment for the youth and offer freebies, including reservation for certain sections in employment.”

The politics of casteism, reservation and communalism continues to haunt UP. In any way, it is not a good sign for the health of the world’s largest democracy. And, hence, there are many lessons to be learnt which could equally be applicable to the Nepali people. There should be no space for political gimmicks which could deepen the divide between different communities, castes and religions. Good governance, education, infrastructure and empowerment of the deprived in the real sense, should be the major focus.

Originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post on is the link.

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