Leading article: India tears up the rule book

Share
Related Topics
India's political traditions lie in ruins. They have been shattered by the country's have-nots and outsiders. They are unlikely to be put back together again. The only certainty is that the country is headed for an extended period of political instability. No party commands an overall majority after last week's inconclusive elections, the largest democratic ballot in history. Whatever government emerges will be a potentially unstable coalition with a very limited life expectancy. There may well be another election within months. That may deliver a very similar result, in which case India's politicians will have to learn new tricks, of ruling through a long-term coalition. Just as likely it may deliver an overall majority to the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Either way, the dominance of the Congress Party, which has ruled virtually without break for 50 years, is at an end. Its collapse in the polls, to a 30 per cent share of the vote, is the reflection of deeper, potentially darker forces at work in Indian politics. Congress government helped to hold the country together. Now it threatens to fragment along religious, caste and regional lines.

Congress ruled, through corruption, horse trading and cynicism. But the high caste intellectuals who created the party also formed a compact with their lower caste supporters. Alongside socialist economic policies it created a vast, leaky social welfare network for the poor, who repaid Congress by voting for it time and again in elections. More recently Congress has been reformist, ditching protectionist policies, welcoming foreign investment, floating the currency, simplifying the tax-system and allowing private banking. It reduced inflation and dramatically increased exports. Yet these economic achievements could not protect the party from the force of disenchanted caste, religious and regional politics.

The real winners in the election were a host of parties representing "low" and "backward" castes and populist regional movements. These 20 or so parties now account for about 40 per cent of the popular vote. This is in part because many lower caste Muslim groups fear that Congress is not being tough enough in response to the rise of the mainly middle and upper caste Hindu BJP. It is also a reaction against the heavy handed rule of Congress from the centre. Indira Gandhi, the great Congress ruler, distorted the Indian constitution's commitment to federalism by attempting to keep the states under firm central control. That is no longer possible: Congress's base in regional politics is increasingly weak. Whichever party rules in India will now confront a more fractious federalism.

The dangers in this situation are immense both for the social fabric of India and its relations with the outside world. The BJP's commitment to economic liberalisation and openness are untested. It wants to court a more moderate image. The party's most forward-looking leaders espouse market economics. The BJP and its more militant ally, the Shiv Sena, have been more or less friendly to foreign investment in Maharashtra state where they control the local government. So despite the wilder economic nationalism of some of its leaders and many of its supporters, it should not be taken for granted that a BJP-led government would be hostile to foreign investment per se.

So far it has said nothing about whether a BJP government would carry out its promise to build nuclear weapons, a policy that would bring it into confrontation with Washington and help further to destabilise the region. If the BJP is serious about wanting to become a responsible government it should make clear that, everything else being equal, it does not plan a nuclear future for India.

However, perhaps the greatest danger is that India will become increasingly ungovernable as the old political system based around Congress hegemony fragments. Religious violence could easily undermine the BJP's commitment to secularism. To govern, the BJP may have to cede powers to the provinces, which might feed regional separatism. If its own extremists are given their head they may well encourage extremism in reaction from populist Muslim parties. At the moment the political system is fragmenting; it may yet polarise.

It is far too early and it would be far too pessimistic to assume this will be the fate of a country that has a huge capacity to absorb change. Indeed, a more optimistic scenario may be just as likely. The fall of Congress may be vital to the health of Indian democracy, by providing choice and change. Its political leaders may yet be able to find a way of governing through a stable coalition if they all understand how little they have to gain from polarisation and conflict. The end of the Congress era may yet create the basis for a new political maturity. That would be a prize indeed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried