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Messy realities of Indian democracy

Messy realities of Indian democracy

Author: Peter Foster
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: May 14, 2007
URL: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/foreign/peterfoster/may2007/messyrealities.htm

We foreign journalists often like to refer to India as the 'world's largest/greatest/most inclusive democracy' when reporting on this country's politics.

President Bush indirectly makes the same point when he praises India as an example of a country that can absorb a massive Muslim minority population without suffering the kind of terror problems experienced in the Middle East.

Of course the President is only half right about that - viz Kashmir, Bombay, Panipat etc - but still, India has a justifiable reputation for yoking together an extraordinarily disparate collection of castes, religions and ethnicities to create a central polity.

However two political events of the last 48 hours provide an insight into the messy ground realities of democracy, Indian-style. If readers in Britain thought it was all one big happy family, well it isn't.

Firstly the victory of Mayawati - Behenji - the 'Queen of the Dalits' who swept the polls in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, confounding the all pundits and the exit polls.

To an outsider, this might seem like a victory for India's lowest caste, but a closer examination reveals it simply to be a victory of one sectional interest group over another.

No one will shed tears for the end of the "Mafia-Raj" of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the out-going chief minister, whose mob (I use the term advisedly) used their time in power only to deepen the political criminalization of a state which fails its citizenry on a massive scale.

But will Mayawati's regime be much better? There isn't much reason to think so.

Her first move in office was to sack two IAS (Indian Adminstrative Service) officers who had failed to maintain the vainglorious park "Ambedkar Park" she spent £12.5m (that's skip-loads of rupees) building during a previous tenure as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister.

The two unlucky men, who have been closely allied to Mulayam Singh Yadav, had spent the weekend following Maya's victory rather comically sprucing the place up at high speed, but it wasn't enough to save their necks.

The papers also report that more than 100 senior police officers and civil servants have already been transferred to 'Siberia' and no doubt within a few days the under-the-table auctions will begin for the plum posts under the new regime.

The last time Mayawati was in power, some administrative jobs reportedly changed hands for as much as £20,000 which gives you an idea how much the lucky recipients must extract in bribes to make the job payments worth-while.

In 2002 and when Mayawati was CM briefly it was reported that 467 IAS officers moved jobs, some of them several times, in 10 months. The rumour was that if someone came in with a higher offer, you just got moved anyway.

What does this achieve for the 140 million - that's two and half times the population of the UK - people who live in abject conditions in UP's rural areas with pathetic schools, healthcare and sanitation?

Absolutely nothing, but then it's five years before they get a chance to vote again, so nobody gives a monkey about them. The politicians will have plenty of time to satiate themselves at the public trough before then.

The second example that came was the resignation yesterday of India's powerful Communications and Information Technology Minister, Dayanidhi Maran, because of a political feud in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

How, British readers might ask, does the central government lose a key minister in Delhi because of a row a thousand miles away in Tamil Nadu? Well, that's the nature of coalition politics.

The minister - a first-time MP - only got the job at the request of the leader of the DMK, the Tamil Nadu political party which is a key backer of the Congress-led minority coalition government in the centre.

What the DMK leadership giveth, the DMK leadership taketh away.

So where does all this leave the 'shining India' of massive foreign investment, economic reforms, booming stock markets - all that stuff British and America readers are having rammed down their throat at the moment?

Answer. In a bit of a mess. While the donnish Dr Manmohan Singh presents the reassuringly technocratic face of a reformed India on the world stage, back home the polity is fracturing into a seething bloodbath of caste division and criminal self-interest.

And don't underestimate Mayawati, or think that her victory in UP is just a local thing. As the leader of India's biggest state she now holds massive power - not least the ability to virtually stitch up who'll be the next President of India, a titular but symbolically important position.

The next General Election is due in 2009 - and may come sooner if things get worse for the current government - and if Mayawati can entrench her power over the next two years, her stated desire of going all the way to the Premiership of India might not be as outrageous as it once sounded.

As both Congress and the Hindu-nationalist BJP - the two national parties on the left and right of Indian politics - have discovered in the UP elections, their traditional votebanks are no longer secure.

Everything is now up for grabs and only one thing seems certain - it's going to be messy.

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