Saturday, 16 May 2009

Notes on the 2009 Indian Election

So the exit polls have been proven wrong, and India has ended up with a more decisive election result than predicted. The ruling Congress party and its allies will probably be able to stitch together a relatively stable coalition government without having to rely on support from ideologically different groups such as the communists. Perhaps in the present economic climate, India needs decisive leadership more than it needs checks on the government's power.

A few quick observations on the election and what it may mean:

1. Dr. Manmohan Singh was much more impressive in his earlier incarnation as India's Finance Minister under former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) than as Prime Minister himself in the last 5 years. I'll be charitable and attribute the relative lack of pathbreaking reform during the last five years to the fact that a dependence on leftist coalition partners tied his hands. Now that that excuse is no longer available, the new government had better deliver.

2. The election seems to have strengthened the centrist parties and weakened both the left and the right. I think this is a good thing given these troubled times. Governments need to be pragmatic and relatively unencumbered by ideological baggage. Let's hope the new Congress government is able to do what's right for the country without being caught up in endless ideological debates.

3. Shashi Tharoor, the former (unsuccessful) candidate for UN Secretary-General, said in a speech after his record win in Thiruvananthapuram that these were the "accountability elections". Where governance was good, incumbents won. Where it wasn't, they lost. Tharoor was gracious and honest enough to point out that this was as true for his own party as for others. I agree with his analysis. The Indian electorate certainly seems to have voted for good government.

4. I wonder if there will be pressure on Dr. Manmohan Singh to step aside partway through his term to make way for Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India's "democratic dynasty". Although I'm against dynastic rule, I think this may in some ways be an improvement. I'm no longer young, so I probably shouldn't be accused of ageism when I say India's political leadership is a generation older than the demographics of the country would justify. The old need to give way to the young. Plus, I think Dr. Manmohan Singh would be far better as an advisor than as a leader. As the old saying goes, academics should be on tap but not on top.

5. Lastly, a moment of unabashed gloating in the achievement of my native country. India has shamed all the countries in its neighbourhood with yet another smooth election, all the more remarkable for its sheer logistics and relative absence of violence. These neighbours have a hard act to follow. India has also shamed many western countries that continue to rely on paper ballots. The 2004 and 2009 elections have shown that electronic voting machines can and do work even in large and diverse countries with significant numbers of illiterate voters. The actual voting process necessarily took time to organise (5 voting days spread over a month to cater to over half a billion voters), but the tabulation and announcement of the results got over in less than a day.

What next for India? It's very, very early days yet, with the results having just been announced. The days that follow will show how things unfold.

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