The scope of the election is vast: 620 million voters choosing among 8,000 candidates for 543 parliamentary seats. It should be colorful as well. Traditionally, elections in India have featured giant rallies and the charismatic personalities of India’s premier political clan: founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi. But this time around, there are no Gandhis, turnout at rallies is low and the campaign in the world’s largest democracy seems lifeless. “This is probably going to be India’s strangest election so far,” says Delhi-based political commentator Kewal Varma. “The political parties are going into it without any major issues and the electorate is cynical and disinterested.” Part of the reason, paradoxically, may be that for once, things are going pretty well for India. When Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao took over in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi had just been assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber; the battle with Sikh militants—which had claimed Indira Gandhi in 1984—was still roiling in Punjab; tensions between Hindus and Muslims were at a high pitch; and the economy was in deep trouble. Today, as the population closes in on one billion, ethnic tensions have eased in most areas—with the unhappy exception of Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated region claimed by Pakistan—and the economy is booming. Rao’s economic reforms, which opened the formerly hyperprotectionist country to a flood of imports and foreign investment, have caused a so-
cial transformation in the cities. The easy availability of Western consumer goods and satellite TV has created an Indian “MTV generation,” set off a whirlwind of entrepreneurial activity, and made once-banned Coca-Cola, as well as Pepsi and Kentucky Fried Chicken, household names.
But none of that is worth much to Rao in the election, in which staggered voting runs from April 27 to May 7. Polls show neither Rao’s long-dominant Congress party nor its main challenger, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gaining anything near a majority. The Third Front, an unwieldy combination of leftwing parties and liberal centrists, lags even further behind. Says former prime minister V. P. Singh, the Third Front leader, in a widely shared view: “We are entering a period of unstable coalition governments.”
On the surface, the deck seems stacked against Congress. Although Rao, 75, has lasted his full five-year term in office, his deeply demoralized party has lost a series of key state elections to regional and rightwing parties, including the BJP. In this campaign, he has avoided trumpeting his economic reforms for fear opposition parties would label him “anti-poor” among the
Rao is also the Bob Dole of Indian politics—seen as dour, brooding and uninspiring in a government beset by crisis. Several of his ministers have had to quit because of alleged involvement in the so-called hawala, or money-laundering, scandal. Rao, too, has been accused of receiving illicit funds from businessmen in the $25million scam. But the damage to Congress has been neutralized because key opposition leaders have also been named, including BJP president Lai Krishna Advani, who pulled out of the elections as a result. Says Calcutta columnist Rudrangshu Mukherjee: “The entire political establishment has been stripped naked.”
The BJP’s new leader has brought some Nehru-like flamboyance to the campaign. A career opposition politician, 71-year-old bachelor Atal Behari Vajpayee is known for his poetry, his powerful oratory and his reported affection for drink (curbed by the state of his liver). But he is also seen as less steady than Rao, and there is now little else to distinguish the BJP Its most visible difference is its hawkish Hindu nationalism—it has made clear, for instance, that a BJP government would use India’s atomic capability to build nuclear bombs to counter Pakistan. But the surge of Hindu-Muslim tension that helped propel the BJP to its best-ever showing at the last election is lacking this time. Even on the key issue of foreign investment, the once-suspicious BJP has moderated its critical stance, although members still flay KFC and MTV as “cultural imperialism.” Last week, Vajpayee promised industrialists the BJP would bring in “further liberalization.”
All of which leads voters like Delhi social worker Seema Singh, 31, to deliver a cynical shrug. “There is little to choose between one party and another,” she says. “This is a contest between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Given the weakness of his rivals, Rao hopes that the very longevity of his government will give him the edge with voters. “The non-Congress parties’ record on providing stable government is very poor,” concedes a Third Front leader. If Rao limps to the finish line first, many analysts believe his skills as a coalition dealmaker will bring him back. Polls show he is still the most acceptable face to govern a nation that, increasingly, is fending for itself.
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