IT’S ABOUT MY INDIA

…escreve a manchete do Hindustan Times de hoje, num artigo de Rajesh Mahapatra.

Rajesh Mahapatra

A split mandate, the usual chaos in corridors of power and the same slanging match among politicians — will this election be any different from the past?

Yes, in some ways.

Incumbency as a factor influencing voters appears to be on the wane. There is no single poll plank that uniformly resonates across the 714-million electorate that will start casting ballot from Thursday.

     Terrorism figures only in places like Delhi and Mumbai, despite 26/11 and its aftermath, and the economic downturn is mostly a concern among urban voters who make up a little over a quarter of the electorate.

     This election is more about local issues and new aspirations. That’s the takeaway from India Yatra — a cross-country journey by 30 reporters and 30 photographers of Hindustan Times, undertaken ahead of the polls.

     From 24-hour electricity to paved roads and schools in neighbourhood, the Indian voter wants a better life and wants politicians to deliver.

     “We have seen voters turning assertive in the south, in some parts of western and northern India as well. Now it’s happening in the impoverished tracts of eastern India and elsewhere,” said Ashok Baral, a social worker in Kalahandi, Orissa.

     So, residents of Barlamunda in Orissa’s Koraput district are threatening to boycott polls, because a road connecting the remote tribal village has remained a promise for the past 15 years.

     In Jalandhar, Punjab, voters want English education, because that improves their job prospects. In the same way, the Karpawal village in Bastar, Chhattisgarh might vote for BJP because its government gave them a school, while many rural voters in Andhra Pradesh may side with Congress because Chief YS Rajasekhara Reddy has given subsidised houses and power.

     Rice for Rs 2 a kilo and 100 days of guaranteed employment from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are welcome, but expectations do not end there.

      Politicians are taking note.

     They are now more visible in their constituencies. Complaints of a missing MP were frequent only in a quarter of the 117 constituencies covered by our journalists and most of these happen to be in the outback of states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Karnataka. In advanced states of Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu as also Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, fewer people had similar grievances.

     “Increasingly, politicians are realising they can’t take voters for granted,” said Rohan D’Souza who teaches science policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

     The shift in aspirations has come with the change in India’s economic landscape.

     With mobile phones and cable television reaching remote villages, “you can, sitting in Kullu, watch The Bold and the Beautiful or the T-20 matches, and you know what the others are like and what they have that you don’t,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of history, Delhi University.

     The spread of communication technologies is also helping people “find a platform for their voice,” he said.

     Voters will pick their candidate depending on who they think would to deliver.

     So in Kaveri delta, the festering dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing water of the river is the most important concern; in Raigad, Maharashtra, the top issue is displacement caused by special economic zone being developed by Reliance Industries Ltd.; in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, voters worry about the ecological fallout of a big dam in the region; and in Assam, it’s all about which party will tackle the problem of Bangladeshi immigrants.

     “Our politics has always been diverse,” said Rangarajan. “But now that diversity is finding expression.”

E este comentário na pág 2 do FT, também hoje:

Poll reveals India’s crisis of identity (James Lamont, New delhi)

If elections in the world’s oldest democracy, as George W. Bush liked to call the US, are a grueling test of character and policy, elections in the largest democracy test neither.

When Indians go to the polls for the start of a month-long phased vote on Thursday, national political vision will be in short supply. Identity politics will be in abundance.

The 714m-strong electorate will have been treated to policy-lite campaigns and candidates swept into seats in last-minute nominations. Voters will have the impression that democracy is all about striking alliances rather than tough debate about what challenges the country faces. No wonder then that the race for government in India lies wide open.

A parliamentary majority eludes India, to its cost. Few today can predict who will rule come June other than some ill-assorted jumble of parties, most probably led by the ruling Congress party.

The country’s political landscape is so fragmented that one party will be lucky to win 150 of the 543 seats of the lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha, up for grabs. The single party parliamentary majority has been nibbled away by regional parties and barons, for whom caste and religion are defining issues. In this election these smaller parties are flexing their muscles by opting to join together, avoiding the grand alliances offered by the two big national parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party, its Hindu nationalist opposition.

Once votes are counted, the two national parties will have to secure the loyalty of partners to form a government. Having failed to campaign with partners on a common platform, the government will be settled by horse trading for cabinet posts. This augurs badly. Indians can expect a repeat of the woes of the past government: a cumbersome coalition too hamstrung by its diverse parts to agree a national vision and push through badly needed reform.

Just as national leadership is struggling to shine through, so are national issues. National security and an economy sapped by the global financial crisis should influence voting. But little public discussion is given over to regional stability, energy supply or human development.

Instead, the political contest turns on personalities. L.K. Advani, the 82-year-old BJP leader, has taunted Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, as a weak leader who takes orders from Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Congress president. Mr Singh, meanwhile, has shot back at Mr Advani, blaming him for sectarian violence including the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the 2002 Gujarat riots that cost the lives of about 2,000 Muslims. Neither man captures the national mood.

Food has a better chance of doing that. Everyone agrees cheap food buys votes. So Congress is wooing poorer voters with rice and wheat priced at Rs3 ($0.04, €0.03, £0.03) per kilo (2.2lb): the BJP has undercut its rival, offering Rs2 a kilo.

In the absence of a great debate, communal issues have taken centre stage. Dominating the run-up to the election has been a scandal involving the black sheep of the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a training shoe tossed at the home minister by an angry Sikh journalist.

Varun Gandhi, Sonia’s nephew, was catapulted into the public eye after he was caught on tape calling at a rally for the slaughter of Muslims, a sizeable minority in India. The BJP candidate is now in prison. But his party has stood by him in a gamble to win the support of Hindu hardliners.

Congress has faced its own embarrassments. The shoe-throwing incident was a protest against the nomination of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar for seats in Delhi. The pair are alleged to have whipped up anti-Sikh riots in 1984 after the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by a Sikh bodyguard. The riots left 2,500 dead.

These are not sideshows, but they do not register in opinion polls of Indian businesspeople. Anti-terror measures, economic stimulus and protection of high growth rates dominate their interests and the nation’s chief executives are backing Mr Singh, a respected economist, to continue as prime minister.

The polls hide the remarkably sanguine view business takes towards the country’s political unpredictability. But then few can see a way out of the political fragmentation.

“Multi-party coalitions appear to be an inescapable feature of the present phase of democratic politics in India,” Ramachandra Guha, a writer, argues in Outlook magazine. “But how long will this . . continue?”

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