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The Elephant Stirs: India’s 15th General Elections Shifts Focus to Governance

May 20, 2009

Observing from the welcome shade of a neem tree in the quadrangle of this school, I watched clusters of colorfully dressed women, undaunted by the 43 degree Celsius (109.4 degree Fahrenheit) temperatures, stride up to the polling centre. I was in Bhilwa, a small village on the edge of the Great Indian Desert in Rural Jaipur. India’s Election Commission had invited me – along with Election Commission officials from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines – to witness the election process in this part of the country. As the women moved to vote, we were struck by the depth to which democracy has seeped into India’s polity. These women voters were part of the Dausa constituency, a region that has recently seen clashes between and protests by the region’s two main tribes, the Meenas and Gujjars.

The results of India’s mammoth, one-month-long General Elections were finally known on May 16th. 714 million Indians registered to vote; and 57 percent of them voted. This represents, in the democratic world, the acme of political mobilization and organizational complexity. The suspense and dire predictions of a hung Parliament are now over. All of the political parties were hoping to gain leverage in this election, yet the perceptive Indian voter has, once again, ignored the rhetoric of religion, caste, and personality and put stability and governance first.

In 2004, the voter punished the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) coalition because its slogan,  “India Shining,” ignored those at “the bottom of the pyramid.” Early into the campaign season, it was clear that the Indian voter wanted a party that would deliver on long-standing needs and ensure that  India’s phenomenal economic growth is not only maintained, but its fruits equally shared. The Congress’s mantra of “inclusive growth” has worked, despite its early programs disappearing because of poor project delivery and corruption. In India, the old adage applies: all politics is local. Voters judged issues on their local impact and their effect on personal well-being. The majority of Indian voters have gone for governance, governance, and governance.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will again form the government. However, this time, they have a strong mandate. The UPA has 200 seats against the required majority of 272 in the 543 member House the Congress. This will give UPA a much freer hand in forming the government and ruling the country. Dr. Manmohan Singh will continue as prime minister, despite the clamor for bringing in Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s leading political family, into the Cabinet. The UPA will likely require one more partner to reach majority rule – and there will be no shortage of takers. With its victory over the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the Congress has made progress in restoring its lost constituencies in the Hindi heartland of the country.

The General Elections were impeccably conducted, free of violence (barring sporadic incidents), and were transparent, free, and fair. The use of 1.4 million electronic voting machines throughout the country – with over 800,000 polling stations – has never been done before, anywhere in the world. The election also had other innovative features worthy of universal replication: photo electoral rolls to avoid impersonation or duplication; mapping in all constituencies to identify areas vulnerable to threat and intimidation; and the strict observance of the Model Code of Conduct for all political parties (which has moral, rather than legal force).

Many anticipated a hung verdict, yet one did not materialize. The president is expected to invite Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the single-largest alliance to form the government. India has been given the much-needed respite in this time of internal and external challenges. The in-coming government faces mounting terrorism, financial stringency, falling industrial output, and great expectations from the voters. During the campaigns, the major political parties and the Congress made many populist promises to garner votes. The promises of subsidized rice and wheat, insurance for the agriculturist, healthcare for all, guaranteed employment will have to be made good. Their day of reckoning is here. Finding the resources for these populist promises is going to be a challenge.

Externally, India faces instability in its neighborhood – Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Plus, India has to re-structure its relations with the major powers, especially the United States and Russia. China’s growing stature in global institutions is another important issue for India’s government. The imperative to maintain its high growth rate and enhance its status as a global player will be a major task.

The Indian voters – now focused on delivery of education, health, roads, electricity, jobs,  and law and order – have decided on the type of governance they want. Mainstream parties tried during the election campaign to deflect the focus from corruption and governance and succumb to populist hand-outs, but their tactics did not work. The immediate task before government is improving the delivery of social sector projects, curbing corruption, reducing bureaucratic interference, and, most importantly, tackling population growth.

India is breathing a sigh of relief today; vacuous machinations and political uncertainty will no longer plague the country. This General Election has energized the country and democracies around the world should rejoice at this incredibly successful exercise of democracy.

Rajendra Abhyankar, former Indian Ambassador, is currently The Asia Foundation’s Director of India Programs in New Delhi. He can be reached at

View all posts by Rajendra Abhyankar

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