Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


India - Leftwing Backlash?
Corriere della Sera - April 16th 2009

During this global economic crisis, it is often said that one consequence could be a reversal of globalisation, a revival of state intervention, even a political swing towards the left. Yet it is hard to find examples of countries where this is actually happening. If Barack Obama is counted as a leftwinger, then perhaps America is one. Who can think of any others? Not Britain, not France, not Germany, certainly not Italy. Today, however, another country goes to the polls that could see a leftwing backlash, despite all the benefits that we in Europe believe it has gained from globalisation and liberal capitalism. It is the world’s largest democracy, India.

            Everything about India’s general elections is impressive. The vote takes an amazingly long time: about five weeks in all. It involves 543 constituencies, in which 714 million people are eligible to vote, in more than 800,000 polling stations, protected by six million officials and security forces. The voting turnout is not high by Italian standards, but at 60% or so is nevertheless remarkable given that more than a third of all Indian adults are illiterate. The numbers are awe-inspiring. Yet truly, it is something else that is really notable about Indian politics and Indian elections. It is the extraordinary political fragmentation of India.

            More than 40 political parties held seats in the outgoing parliament. The governing coalition, led by the Indian National Congress, which is one of only two truly national political parties, consisted of 10 parties, but also relied on the less formal support of four others. The previous governing coalition, which ruled India from 1998 until 2004, was led by the other national party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and also consisted of 10 parties but had at one time or another been joined by more than 10 others.

            India makes Italian politics, even under the First Republic, look simple. The result is that election results themselves are far from simple: it is not just the number of seats and votes that matter, but also the question of which parties are willing to form alliances with which others.

            That is where the possibility of a swing to the left comes in, but it does so for reasons of fragmentation, not a policy debate. India under the Congress-led government has enjoyed the most rapid period of economic growth in its history: until 2009, annual GDP growth rates had averaged more than 8% a year. This year, growth has slowed down substantially, thanks to the collapse in world trade and the crisis in financial markets: most economists expect India’s GDP this year to grow by 4-5%.

The incumbent government is unlikely to be held responsible for that slowdown, for everyone knows that the slowdown has had global causes. Even so, it has not gained great credit for the previously excellent economic record either. The reason is twofold: first is that Indian farmers saw little benefit from the country’s economic success, which is politically important because 70% of the population still lives in the countryside; the second is that in recent years inflation has hurt the poor, through rising fuel and food prices. That inflation has now subsided, but memories of it linger on.

At the last general election, in 2004, the BJP-led government was widely tipped to win, thanks to its good economic record. The fragmented nature of Indian politics, plus some rural discontent, instead produced its defeat. In 2009, many Indian political commentators expect the Congress party to win enough seats to form a government again, helped by the young son of its de facto leader, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul. That family’s loyalists hope that he might even take over as prime minister in a year or two’s time, even though he is only 38 years old in a country where prime ministers have typically been in their 70s or even 80s.

But the commentators could again be proved wrong. The BJP could end up strong enough to form the governing coalition. In that case, little would change: the BJP and Congress essentially agree about both economic and foreign policy. Yet there is a third possibility. Parties based on support from the lowest castes in Indian society, from many of the poorest groups, have been gaining political strength in recent years. One of the biggest such parties, based in one of the largest states, Uttar Pradesh, is led by a woman, Mayawati. If parties such as hers turn out to prosper at this election, thanks to rural discontent and the memory of inflation, there is a chance that Mayawati might in fact be strong enough to form a governing coalition, probably in collusion with India’s communist parties.

The opinion polls do not currently suggest that this is the likeliest outcome. But in rural, heavily illiterate, politically fragmented India the opinion polls can be especially misleading. If Mayawati were to form a government, then India, one of the rising giants of globalisation, could take a sharp move to the left, reversing economic reforms and even raising its trade barriers again. It would be a remarkable outcome.


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