Polls ahoy! (INDIA)

Polls are a celebration of democracy, particularly so because they decide the fate of governments, which affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. National parliamentary elections are about the big issues, while local elections deal with problems such as clogged drains, ration cards and errant officials. State assembly elections are a mix of both, in which issues such as education, health, law and order, corruption and taxation ignite fierce debates.

Then there are the problems, and in India, state elections have something for every segment of society. Yet despite the localisation of issues, four of India's six upcoming elections – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, in addition to Mizoram and Jammu & Kashmir – will be a straight battle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the Bahujan Samaj Party attempting to gain a foothold. As such, in these states largely devoid of strong regional parties, the two major national parties are moulding themselves to local sentiment.

Given their importance, the assembly elections in these six sensitive states – ultimately affecting about 170 million people – are getting surprisingly little attention in the metropolitan media of India, let alone elsewhere in Southasia. Islamabad did raise customary queries about the legitimacy of elections in Jammu & Kashmir, though these were promptly condemned by New Delhi. But these diplomatic spats were predictable. If anything, the tone of accusations and denials was less strident this time. Elections in J & K may even highlight the urgency and inevitability of rapprochement between India and Pakistan – if they attract enough voters to the polling booths, despite the boycott called by militant groups, the record number of security personnel deployed,  and the violence that has accompanied the polling. At the beginning of the month-long phased polls, the picture is yet unclear, and the jingoism in the mainstream Indian media has little to offer by way of analysis.

Elections in Mizoram are turning out to be a testing ground for heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi. From Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi down to Rajiv, the Nehru-Gandhi family had enjoyed a measure of acceptability and legitimacy in the marginalised states of the Northeast as 'representatives' of the mainstream, with whom local elites could deal in confidence. In a way, Sonia Gandhi is sending a message to the people of Mizoram: the Gandhi family is back.

There is less at stake in Chhattisgarh, a state where almost all political parties perceive their main enemy to be the Naxalites, and cannot think of any poll strategy other than competitive populism. The base approach seems to have worked; the second phase of polls attracted 65-68 percent of the voters.

Generally, elections in Delhi are so dominated by the contest of personalities that issues get pushed to the background. The BJP attempted to link the polls with inflation, and its battle cry has been "Mahangi padi Congress", translatable in two ways: electing Congress was a mistake, or Congress has proven costly. Such sentiments have little resonance in campaigning, however. Where candidates portray the polls as a referendum over the performance of incumbent Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, they find that her 'achievements' – the metro railway and the stadia for the Commonwealth Games, slated for 2010 – appeal to Delhi-ites eager to support the transformation of their city into a 'world-class' metropolis.

In Rajasthan, caste and community equations dominate elections to such an extent that it is impossible to gauge the impact on poll results. Congress appears to be banking on anti-incumbency, and the BJP has been pointing its finger towards New Delhi in return. But all that is merely for the public's consumption. In fact, deals made inside princely durbars and merchant havelis are what determine the outcome of polls in this chronically feudalistic state.

The tourism department of Madhya Pradesh promotes that state as the 'heart of India'. The claim is not without merit. Madhya Pradesh state catches whiffs of political air from the states south of the Vindhyas, and affects terms of contestations in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Voters in Madhya Pradesh understand the importance of their verdict better than do the two main contestants – the BJP and Congress – and have been spurning their rallies with disdain. Whether this a rejection of government in the state or that in the Centre is unclear.

Centre can hold?
Analysts and psephologists speculate that the government at the Centre might opt to call for an early general election, should election results in these six states go in its favour. It is difficult to reject that contention out of hand, but it would be too simplistic to predict the possible outcome of general elections by basing one's calculations on results in the state polls. The analysts' references to the 'maturity of Indian voters', claims about their 'inherent rationality' as well as dismissive rejections of the 'poor, ignorant masses' are all equally misleading. Voting trends in the general elections and state polls differ simply because they are different. Caste, community and personality of local leaders decisively affect the popularity of political parties. Perhaps this is why state committees of 'national' parties so often behave like regional parties. Alliance-building is difficult since supporters of some candidates cut across party loyalties. General elections in India, on the other hand, are a contest of competing alliances rather than of all-encompassing 'national' parties that aggregate conflicting interests of different population groups.

However, the Centre can only hold if it is based on vibrant local governments and dynamic state assemblies. Had assembly elections been projected for what they actually are rather than for what they could do for the impending general elections – perhaps then the celebration of democracy in India could have been more genuine.

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Himal Southasian