The most powerful political leader in India is Sonia Gandhi. India’s most powerful political parties are the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). India’s foreign policy, especially its attitude to its neighbours, is determined not by popular national opinion but a handful of strategists in New Delhi. All this is about to change.
A series of opinion polls in India conducted by media houses in collaboration with professional survey firms over the past few months have returned the verdict that Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would not win if elections were held anytime soon. By 2014, when the next general elections are due, the Congress-led UPA’s popularity is expected to slide further. In 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress got one in two votes polled in India. It has gradually declined to the point where it will consider itself fortunate to win one in four votes in the coming elections. The BJP will aim for one in five.
The setback for the UPA will not automatically mean gains for the national opposition alliance. This is no longer a zero-sum game. The surveys show that India’s national political parties — the Congress and the BJP combines — will not even get half the votes that will be cast in the general elections. Even the projections of possible successors to Manmohan Singh are from the states.
Opinion polls in India are notoriously compromised by the size and diversity of the Indian electorate. They tend to return inconsistent, if not contradictory, reports. But the one point on which the poll results converge is that in the near future, regional parties will rule India. Having wheedled their way into power and influence in New Delhi in the past decade, regional parties had already ensured that the era of coalition governments was here to stay. They will now also determine India’s economic reforms, foreign direct investment (FDI) and, crucially, foreign policy.
At the global investment conference in London last month, India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma sought to assure retail corporations like Walmart and Carrefour that are eager to open shop in Indian cities: “Most chief ministers support FDI in retail.” In happier times for the national parties, that kind of support was necessary only from lawmakers in parliament.
A few other illustrations will help. On August 20, India reacted with dismay when Sri Lanka sold a big plot in a posh area of Colombo to a Chinese state-owned aircraft manufacturing company that supposedly has connections in Pakistan. India has always been wary of China’s influence in the neighbourhood and the plot had apparently been long-promised to the Indian High Commission for a cultural centre. India is hurt. But it might do better to bring to mind its vote in March in favour of the UN human rights commission censuring Sri Lanka for rights violations during the long years of war against Tamil ethnic rebels. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged New Delhi to think again about its policies in the neighbourhood. Until then, it had generally been India’s policy not to vote on ‘country-specific’ resolutions. But in this case, though the resolution was sponsored by the US, New Delhi’s hand was actually forced by the DMK party, the UPA’s coalition partner in Tamil Nadu.
Last September, another regional party and UPA partner, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh red-faced when party head and chief minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accompany him on a trip to Bangladesh. Four chief ministers had accompanied the PM on the trip and the build-up had promised agreement on several issues. Banerjee, who has a running dispute with Bangladesh along her state border on sharing waters of the River Teesta, upset more than protocol. The river water agreement could not be signed.
Regional parties in India have evolved from local cultures and histories. They do not share or respond to the grand narratives of Hindustan or Bharat the way the Congress and the BJP do. In many ways, India is a state of nations rather than it being the other way around. The opening of trade ties with Pakistan, too, is in some measure due to the demands of industry and commerce in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Many Indian states, sharing borders and cultures with neighbouring countries, are now seeking the opening up of roads and communications for goods and services across the border. India’s neighbourhood policy is being tamed and bent to suit local trade and commercial interests. That is not a bad thing, perhaps.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2012.
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