Journal of South Asia Women Studies

India General Elections 2009

Editorial Note by Enrica Garzilli

A major event shaped the politcs and the regional security of Asia in the latest two months: the general elections to the 15th Lok Sabha, the House of the People of the Parliament of India, which were held in five phases between April 16 and May 13, 2009 and saw 714 million voters. The results of the elections were announced three days later: the Indian National Congress (headed by Sonia Gandhi), chief member of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition (UPA), won 206 seats and formed the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; the Bharatiya Janata Party (headed by Rajnath Singh), chief member of the National Democratic Alliance led by Lal Krishna Advani, won 116 seats and is currently in the opposition; Left Front and Left Democratic Front won 24 seats; and Bahujan Samaj Party won 21 seats (here the complete list of the winner parties). The new government is led by the UPA, which got 262 seats; the Janata Dal (Secular), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party gave unconditional support to the government; Nagaland Peoples Front, Sikkim Democratic Front, and Bodaland Peoples Front, followed by other parties, joined. Thanks to the fact that the UPA is short of just 10 seats for a majority, and to the external support of most parties, this looks like a very stable government. An analysis of the elections “Indian Elections 2009: A Vote for Stability” is offerred by Domenico Amirante (Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli, Naples, Italy).

In this issue you can read the paper “Women Empowerment and Activism in the Indian state of Uttarakhand”, by Annpurna Nautiyal (H.N.B. Garhwal University, Uttarakhand, India), which offers and overview of the issues encountered by the women of the new state of Uttarakhand, as far as political participation and access to power are concerned. The review paper by Carol Corrine Davis (Franklin & Marshall College, USA) explores the world of Sangita Rayamajhi’s All Mothers Are Working Mothers, the first play to be published by a female Nepali playwright. Enjoy!

Indian Elections 2009: A Vote for Stability

by Domenico Amirante

India’s Parliamentary elections of April - May 2009 to the 15th Lok Sabha, held in the difficult context of the aftermath of the world economic crisis and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, represented an important test for governance. The message of the voters to the political class facing the challenges of the 2009-2014 legislature is very clear: it is a demand for political and institutional stability. The results of the elections awarded the ruling government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) lead by the Congress Party, far beyond the poll forecasts and the more optimistic expectations of the majority parties. More interestingly, this electoral round has confirmed the late trend of Indian politics, sanctioning its return to stability after the difficult transition from the ephemeral coalitions of the '90s.

The main feature confirmed by the 2009 vote is the establishment of a bipolar party system of the biggest parties: the Indian National Congress and the Hindu nationalist BJP, its main opponent. None of the two is able to rule the country alone and needs a number of small and medium parties to form government coalitions. In this way, smaller parties are enjoying power and influence, which are somehow disproportionate to their electoral results. Among those parties, the more influential are the regional or state parties, representing regional or ethno-linguistic groups, and often ruling a member state. More recently the Indian political scenario has witnessed the rise, mostly in the north of the country, of parties representing the lower layers of society, the lower castes or the so-called outcastes. The most important among these parties is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), ruling today in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with over 170 million inhabitants. The BSP leader, Mrs. Kumari Mayawaty, also known as “the Queen of the Dalits”, is gaining increasing national support.

In the last decade the ruling coalitions, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the BJP (1999-2004), and the Congress-lead UPA (2004-2009), despite the high number of parties involved had enough strength and discipline to last for the entire legislature. The confirmation of this bipolar scheme was not to be taken for granted at the eve of 2009 elections. The previous two years were difficult for the UPA and the Congress because, in spite of the electoral promises, the economic policy of the government did not improve the standard of living of the lower classes, particularly in rural areas. As a result, the coalition suffered a significant loss of consensus.

In the meanwhile, the BJP obtained relevant victories in important state elections such as the triumph of Narendra Modi, reconfirmed in the rich state of Gujarat, and the significant electoral growth of the party in Karnataka, a fast developing state.

Nevertheless, the real political threat for the majority was considered the rise of the outcastes’ party, the BSP. In fact, after her large victory in 2007 Uttar Pradesh elections, with the absolute majority of seats in the state Assembly, Mayawaty declared her intentions to run for Prime Minister of India, creating a Third Front able to defeat both the Congress, and the BJP. In addition, in 2008, after the Mumbai terrorist attack, the government showed a high degree of inefficiency in managing the crisis, losing legitimacy at national and international level.

Quite surprisingly, in December 2008 the negative trend for the Congress and its allies changed direction, obtaining an unexpected success in several state elections. The Congress won in Rajastan and Delhi Capital Territory, and got good results in Jammu & Kashmir, the traditional stronghold of Islamic separatism, being able to form a governing coalition together with other moderate parties. This electoral results showed a new support to the secular government, as a reaction to communalism and fundamentalism, both from the Hindu and the Islamic side.

The electoral campaign leading to the 2009 vote did not present relevant issues. The Congress program was centered, like in 2004, on the needs of the “common man”. The BJP, trying to divert the focus from communalism, wore the suit of efficiency with the slogan “able leader for decisive government”. The new coalition Third Front (including more than ten different political parties) did not show sufficient strength and unity to convince the voters, and could not even indicate a candidate for the position of Prime Minister, losing in this way the “Mayawaty effect”. The opinion polls had predicted a dark scenario: the two coalitions very close to each other and very far from the 272 seat majority needed to form the government (i.e., according to Star-Nielsen, 203 to UPA and 191 to NDA). The Third Front was credited a decisive role, with more than 100 seats.

Like in 2004, the actual results have completely contradicted the opinion polls. The UPA with its 262 seats obtained over 100 seats more than the NDA (157) while the Congress, with 206 MPs, nearly doubled the BJP (116). The Third Front, with 80 seats only, had no role to play in making the government. A few days after the vote the UPA reconfirmed Manmoham Singh as the PM, counting on the support of smaller parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Laloo Prasad. The Third Front immediately split up, and the BSP announced its external support to the UPA government. The BJP faced a severe setback, even though it kept its strongholds in rich and populous states such as Gujarat and Karnataka. What is clear is that religious fundamentalism and communalism, while still attracting many votes, are not sufficient elements to rule the Union in a complex country like India.

The forthcoming five years are apparently easier for the Manmohan team, with the Congress leading a coalition stronger and more disciplinated than in the previous legislature. However, the problems to solve are not easier. The lower layers of Indian society, confirming their support to UPA, are now expecting a real improvement of their living standard (as promised by the policy of inclusion in the electoral campaign) while many financial efforts have to be made to overcome the effects of the world crisis on the growth of indian economy. The threat of terrorism requires on one side zero-tolerance and more efficiency towards extremism, on the other, diplomacy and dialogue, according to the words of the Union President Pratibha Patil, “with all groups that abjure violence in Northest, Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of the country”.

For Western observers the Indian 2009 general elections offer some interesting lesson: in a highly multicultural country like India, with its 23 official languages and more than 6 religions, the voters have chosen a coalition indicating as its main values pluralism and secularism. The terrorist attacks to Mumbai, aimed to discredit Indian secularism and democracy and to destabilize the whole geopolitical area, provoked the opposite effect: more than 400 million votes, a percentage of 58,5% voters, who confirmed to trust the power of vote (compared with the meager 43% of the European Parliamentary election of June 2009) and reconfirmed the leading party.

A last remark concerns the role of women in apex positions in Indian politics: Pratibha Patil is the President of the Union since 2007, Meira Kumar has freshly been appointed as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha while Sonia Gandhi, even though in 2004 declined the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha and rejected the post as Prime Minister, is still the President of the ruling party, and plays a pivotal role in the government action. Indian politics today speaks feminine.