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    South Asia
     May 19, 2009
India opts for continuity, stability
By M K Bhadrakumar

India's parliamentary election, held over a month across the far-flung country of a billion-plus people, has produced dramatic but sophisticated results.

Belying the widespread estimation of a "hung" parliament and a possibly wobbly coalition government ensuing, the voters - more than 700 million were eligible to cast a ballot - have dealt a thoughtful, mature verdict in favor of continuance and stability, electing the Indian National Congress and its allies to power for another five-year term. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is set to continue as the head of government, noted, "The people of India have spoken, and spoken with great clarity."

It is a landmark event in many ways. With 206 seats in the new 543-parliament, Congress on its own has crossed the 200-seat


mark for the first time since the "coalition era" began in Indian politics some two decades ago. After Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, Manmohan becomes only the second prime minister in independent India's 62-year history to remain consecutively for a second term as prime minister.

Congress, a largely centrist party, is showing definite signs of regeneration after a steady decline through the past quarter century. That alone holds immense consequences for Indian politics. Equally, the parties of the Right (Bhartiya Janata Party - BJP) and the left (communist parties) have suffered a major setback, squashing their high hopes of running a new coalition government.

As cadre-based parties, the BJP and the communist parties, though placed at far ends of the political spectrum, face a not-too-dissimilar dilemma. Their transition to cope with a rapidly changing India has run into serious difficulties. Even as they began edging away from their natural habitat - Hindu nationalism and Marxism - in recent years towards the moderate center of consensus politics or feisty indulgence in the market, disorientation has appeared amongst their traditional cadres.

There is a palpable sense of alienation among these members, compounded in no small measure by the public eruption of squabbles and personality clashes among the leaders, which have together led to an overall weakening of party discipline. For both the BJP and the communist parties, a period of serious stock-taking is at hand as regards their future direction. The task isn't easy, since in India's increasingly competitive political environment, the elbow room for maneuvering is shrinking, and there is the constant danger of being left behind when a society is transforming fast.

However, the triumph of the Congress is due not only to the failings of the opposition but is an aggregate of several factors. There has been an estimated 9% swing in votes in favor of the Congress, which is an affirmative message.

First off, Congress has benefited from what can only be called the "politics of fear", endemic to uncertain times. India has been convulsed by terrorism in the recent past. This, along with a dangerous regional environment and the gnawing worries of economic uncertainties against the backdrop of the global crisis, has created an acute sense of insecurity in the Indian mind. The people have instinctively reached out to the Congress - India's sure, tested "ruling party".

Two, Congress is in actuality a curious rainbow coalition by itself and has been able to accommodate the growing aspirations of a wide array of interest groups or social categories - the millions of poor people, an expanding middle class and, importantly, the youth who form two thirds of India's population.

Three, India's 150-odd million Muslim population has flocked back to the Congress for a variety of reasons, such as the fear of the ascendance of rightwing nationalist forces, the rising curve of terrorism, disenchantment with regional parties and so forth. Muslim alienation had been a major factor behind the Congress's decline in the past two decades.

Four, Congress has regained its capacity to "connect" with the people, thanks to the arrival on the center stage of the charismatic 37-year-old scion of the Nehru family, Rahul Gandhi.

With his dimpled smile and earnest eyes, he has tirelessly crisscrossed the vast country during the past couple of years, carrying a refreshing message of "clean" politics, inner party democracy, a generational leap in politics and good and responsive governance. It is absolutely certain that he will assume the country's prime ministership in the near future. Of course, what he would or could deliver once in the creaky apparatus of power is another matter. But for the present, he casts an appeal whose ripples are widening.

The eclipse of the left parties, who were influential in the previous coalition government, will have important consequences for national policies. This will be most keenly felt in the new government's economic decisions, with the stage looking set for another burst of reforms. Taking on board the lessons of the crisis emanating out of excesses of the financial system in the US and European countries, India may still opt for reforms aimed at assuring the corporate sector of long-tenure funding through pending reforms, such as further opening up of the insurance and pension sectors to foreign direct investment.

Again, the government will most certainly revive disinvestment and privatization, given the substantial financial resources needed for boosting demand and stimulating the economy. Other expected directions of reform include an overall liberalization of foreign direct investment norms, overhauling of the labor market, and opening up of the huge domestic market for retail trade to foreign chains. Singh has repeatedly stressed the imperative of catapulting the economy into double-digit growth, for which he underscores the need of large-scale investment, massive job creation and boosting demand.

In foreign policy, the hallmark of the new government will be "continuity". In plain terms, this translates as further strengthening and consolidation of the strategic ties with the US. Washington has lost no time in taking note of the continuance of the Congress at the helm of the new government in New Delhi. President Barack Obama has hailed India's flourishing plural democracy as "an example for us all" and has pledged to "enhance the warm partnership between our two countries".

Manmohan will no doubt continue to place primacy in foreign policy on India's partnership with the US. The accent will be on harmonizing India's regional policies with the US approach in theaters such as the Indian Ocean and South Asia, Middle East and the Far East; on boosting military-to-military cooperation, and, in overall terms, on striving to become a participant in the US's global agenda and strategies.

However, the fact remains that the new Indian government also faces a changed - even evolving - international system. Quite obviously, India is yet to digest fully the Obama phenomenon. Indeed, the US's own global priorities are shifting. The crux of the matter lies in the US's relationship with China.

At first glance, it may appear there is hardly any ellipsis between George W Bush's policy of engaging China in "constructive, candid and cooperative" ties and Obama's search for a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive" US-China partnership. But the reality is that the US today has a much greater need of strategic engagement with China and arguably to "upgrade" the partnership in the direction of an elevated dialogue on global political issues.

To be sure, China's global influence has increased and a full-blown US-China strategic partnership - as evident from the mere talk of an exclusive "G-2" matrix - will figure on the radars of countries such as India (or Japan) as a high probability if not an inevitability. The Obama administration will have to work hard to reassure India that it is not being relegated to a subordinate status.

An intriguing template of the new government's foreign policy will be as regards India's troubled relationship with Pakistan. Prima facie, an excellent opportunity is at hand to reach an understanding over the Kashmir problem. At the same time, the fallout of the US's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy needs to be carefully factored.

The US's need to accommodate numerous factors - the Pakistan military, Pakistani pressure on the US to maintain balanced relationships with the two South Asian rivals and to mediate in India-Pakistan differences, any further radicalization of Pakistan's internal situation, the trajectory of the war in Afghanistan, political accommodation of the Taliban, Pakistani sensitivities about Delhi's influence in Kabul - all these impact on India's core concerns and vital interests.

Indeed, the Indian establishment is peeved about the downstream Pakistani lack of response on the investigations regarding the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November. A potential time bomb is ticking insofar as the trial on the Mumbai attack has begun in the Indian courts and there have been insinuations by the Indian establishment regarding involvement of Pakistani agencies. Over and above this, there is always the real danger of a similar Mumbai-type attack by various elements with the agenda of precipitating an India-Pakistan confrontation aimed at complicating the Obama administration's AfPak strategy.

All in all, therefore, despite the Obama administration's urgings, a stable government in Delhi by itself cannot easily go the extra league in relations with Pakistan. Delhi - and a Congress government - will only move with great caution.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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