Weekly Insights and Analysis

What is the Indian Electorate Waiting For?

December 17, 2008

By Balasubramanian Iyer

Many in India expected India’s ruling Congress Party to be defeated in recent state elections because of its inept handling of the Mumbai attacks and the souring economy. It didn’t, proving yet again that politics is local. In the forthcoming general elections, however, these global factors of terrorism and the economy will matter.

In Mumbai and throughout India, there is public outrage not only against the perpetrators of the attacks and their supporters, but against an utterly ineffective intelligence and security infrastructure. The Indian electorate is waiting to see the Congress Party’s response to the terrorist attacks; this will determine the Party’s fate in the Parliamentary elections, to be held in mid-2009.

The attacks in Mumbai last month stunned the nation and the world. From November 26 to 29, citizens across the globe watched armed men using automatic weapons and grenades to attack India’s financial capital on live television. The attacks started at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station and simultaneously covered the Cafe Leopold, a popular hangout for Western tourists, the Cama Hospital for women and infants authorities — and the main targets: the Trident Hotel, Taj Mahal Hotel, and the Chabad House, where several Jewish families live. At least 173 people were killed and at least 293 were injured in the attacks.

In an almost surreal fashion, while terrorists held Mumbai hostage, state elections were well underway. Ballots had been cast in the states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh well before the attacks; on 29 November, the last day of the attack, voting took place in Delhi and Mizoram. The only state where elections took place wholly after the attacks was Rajasthan.  India has not been immune to the global financial meltdown, rising inflation, and soaring prices for essential commodities, and this had led experts to predict that the Congress party would not fare well  on Election Day. Anti-incumbency is not always a reason to vote out a government, but ineptness always is. That could be why the Congress held their own in Delhi and the BJP got a drubbing in Rajasthan.  Make no mistake: terrorism is very much on the Indian electorate’s mind.  But they want to see concrete action taken against the terrorists and their supporters. They clearly  don’t want terror to be politicized or to be given a hasty response. Before the election, the main opposition party, the BJP, campaigned heavily on the terror issue and quickly tried to capitalize on the Mumbai attacks by sending Narendra Modi — Chief Minister of Gujarat and a BJP stalwart — to Mumbai. This was not well received by the Indian people.

Pakistan, which has been accused by India of harboring and supporting the terrorists, has been taking steps under strong US and international pressure. The Pakistani government stated it will ban Jamaat-ud-Dawa — the political arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to which the sole surviving terrorist in Indian police custody, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, is said to belong. The Pakistanis have detained Masood Azar of Jaish-e-Mahammad and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah, the two members of LeT whom India has blamed for the attacks in Mumbai. However, Pakistan has made it clear that it will not hand over the detained individuals to India, but would take action  on the basis of provided evidence.

The specific actions beyond the symbolic steps Pakistan has taken so far will have a bearing on the Indian response to this tragic event and decide how the electorate votes in the Parliamentary elections.

Balu Iyer is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Field Operations, South Asia, for The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at

Related locations: India
Related programs: Elections


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