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Democratic mysteries - The Afternoon Despatch and Courier

Editorial ()
February 25, 1998

Title: Democratic mysteries
Author: Editorial
Publication: The Afternoon Despatch and Courier
Date: February 25, 1998

The staging of parliamentary elections in India has become a
logistical marathon. At 605.3 million, the number of eligible
voters far outstrips India's total population at Independence,
making it necessary to stagger the voting process over five
phases. Even with 4.5 million election officials and substantial
military and police back-up, it is impossible otherwise to
monitor 900,000 polling stations. By imposing a 22-fold increase
in the deposit, India's Election Commission has pared the number
of candidates from 13,592 in 1996 to 4,693 this year; but the
number of registered parties, some of them minute, is still a
bewildering 662.

Elections are also stormier affairs than they used to be. The
criminalisation of Indian politics, a side-effect of a judicial
process so slow that candidates can continue in politics for
years despite the charges outstanding against them, has become a
national scandal. Bombs, kidnappings and organised violence have
replaced sporadic and controllable protests by over-excited mobs
wielding sticks. India has added the phrase ooth capturing" to
the English political lexicon. This year's voting began badly
last Monday in crime-ridding Bihar, where reruns were ordered at
1,500 stations and all votes in the state capital, Patna, were
declared void after armed gangs stormed into booths to tear up
ballot papers. Yesterday's second phase was relatively peaceful;
a toll of eight dead has, with reason, come to be seen as ery
satisfying=94.

Above all, Indian elections no longer end in clear-cup political
victories. The days when the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's Congress
Party dominated the political stage are gone, probably for good,
in favour of coalitions of numbing complexity that almost never
serve their full five-year terms. This is India's second general
election in two years. It would have come even but for a oalition-
rescuing change of Prime Minister last summer. That brief truce
ended when Congress, chafing in opposition, forced fresh
elections that it cannot hope to win.

The cumulative effect is to render India not only the world's
largest democracy, but its most confusing. Indians are not alone
in desiring a greater measure of clarity, predictability and
above all durability in their governments. Yet these expensive
and increasingly frequent calls on the voter are a necessary part
of India's breaking of the post Independence political mould that
the Congress Party had come to take for granted. During its long
years of dominance, this vast and heterogeneous country was
subjected to an unhealthy degree of centralisation.

The rise of regional parties, reflected in the outgoing coalition
of Inder Kumar Gujral, is thus a natural corrective to Delhi's
accumulation of powers which should not be misinterpreted as a
portent of India's fragmentation. Greater respect for local
decision-making is as much a part of the emodernisation of India
as is the economic liberalisation set in train in 1991.

More troubling, because potentially more divisive, has been the
growth of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It
emerged as the single largest party in 1996, and is expected to
do as well or better this time. But elections have imposed their
discipline on the BJP; to win votes, it has modified its anti-
Muslim rhetoric. That it should have to do so in a country which
is 82 per cent Hindu is encouraging. So is the fact that while
Indians do not trust their politicians, they have not lost their
appetite for turning out in the belief that elections are still
their best opportunity to bring about change.

An editorial in the Times, London


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