In Indian elections, the real story is regional strength

In reporting on the Indian general elections, concluded earlier this month, the American media have suffered from a grand optical illusion.

The elections have been widely depicted as a presidential-style contest between Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the Indian National Congress. Mrs. Gandhi's "foreign origin" is regarded by these media pundits to have been the Achilles' heel of the Congress party, paving the way for a decisive victory for the Hindu nationalist BJP. None of this is true.

It is not surprising that in the United States, a land cast in the unbreakable mold of a two-party presidential system, the media would miss the real story of India's regional politics. My own close observations of the Indian electoral scene from early June through early October indicate a radically different picture.

The key winners represent an array of regional parties throughout India. These parties have campaigned on local and regional issues that are directly relevant to the populace - improvements in drinking water, roads, rural electrification, and schools. They want more autonomy for the states and a legitimate share of power at a more federal and less unitary center. In 1947 the Indian National Congress had taken on the centralized state apparatus of the British Raj. Since the early 1980s, many regions have protested overcentralization at the capital.

Now that the elections are over, the interest level of the regional parties in foreign and defense policy will set the tenor of India's relations with the US and Pakistan. Their predilections will determine the pace and direction of India's next stage of economic reforms. These are facts that no US policymaker or investor can afford to ignore. In his speech to the new Parliament Oct. 25, President Vajpayee announced the government would review the Constitution and reorder center-state relations.

Mr. Vajpayee won the prime minister post because he decided not to play King Canute to the rising tide of regional forces. During his campaign, he went so far as to say that in a country as diverse as India it would be patently undemocratic to have a single-party government.

Sonia Gandhi, the would-be inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has led the Congress party to the most dismal electoral performance in its history - not because she was born Italian, but because of her political inexperience and the incompetence of her coterie of advisers.

In a context where power had seeped down to the regions, her party failed to forge the right regional alliances and made preposterous claims about the Congress's ability to provide India a single-party government.

In India's newly elected Lok Sabha (House of the People), out of 537 seats, 182 were won by the BJP and 112 by the Congress. More than 250 were won by a variety of regional parties.

Winners in the ruling coalition included parties such as the Telegu Desam of Andhra Pradesh, led by the reformist, technocratic chief minister Chandrababu Naidu; the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Tamil Nadu, which holds commerce and industry portfolios; the Janata Dal United of Bihar led by Defense Minister George Fernandes; the regional populist Trinamool Congress of Bengal, which is in charge of railways. In the opposition benches are regional parties with lower caste bases like the Samajw Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh.

If anything, the general elections of 1999 have punctured the all-India national pretensions of the Congress Party and BJP alike. India's grand old party - the Indian National Congress - appears to be in decline as it clings to its Italian-born high priestess for survival. If the BJP looks to be alive and kicking, it is only because of a pragmatic abandonment of its unitary ideology.

But it is not entirely clear whether a BJP in power will learn to accept the reality of its own situation - that it is, all said and done, a large regional party of northern and western India that is not well equipped to address the myriad class and caste contradictions even within these regions. The BJP top brass's desire to preserve most of the plum ministerial portfolios at the federal center for itself sits uneasily with its campaign promise to respect India's regional diversity by sharing power.

The Indian Republic of 1950 inherited the overcentralized structure and a monolithic ideology of sovereignty from the British Raj. With the stirring of the populace to a new level of consciousness, the year 2000 calls for the inauguration of a Second Republic, more federal not just in form but also in substance.

India's Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: "Where there is genuine difference, it is only by respecting and restraining that difference in its proper place, that it is possible to forge unity. One cannot achieve unity by issuing legal fiats that everybody is one." Perhaps the federalist papers for the 21st century will be written in India.

*Sugata Bose is a professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Medford, Mass. He recently traveled to India for the elections.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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