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India elections: parsing the meaning

On May 16, India announced the results of its marathon election. A day before, Passport members spoke with GlobalPost's New Delhi correspondent Jason Overdorf about why the elections matter so much for India. Here's the audio from the conversation.


(Krishnendu Halder/Reuters)

The Indian elections may have been a victory for stability, U.S. geopolitical interests and the markets – which rallied nearly 20 percent. And yet they were decided on the most local of issues – water, electricity and roads.


GlobalPost’s correspondent in New Delhi explains why.


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Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of the Correspondent Call with New Delhi correspondent Jason Overdorf.


Passport: Good morning everybody, I’d like to welcome you to GlobalPost Passport’s first Correspondent Call. It’s May 15, I’m David Case, the editor of GlobalPost Passport, calling in from the GlobalPost newsroom in Boston.

The topic of today’s call is India’s marathon elections, the results of which will be announced tomorrow. As you likely know, in recent years, India has emerged as an economic powerhouse. In purchasing power terms, the country is the world’s sixth largest economy now, ahead of the U.K. and Germany. India has captured the world’s attention via outsourcing, a thriving knowledge economy, Bollywood and the Tata Nano.


In stark contrast to China, where the government dominates much of the economy, it is often said that India’s economic growth has occurred in spite of New Delhi’s competitive and often corrupt politicians. The big question now is how the new government coming to power in New Delhi will shepherd the county forward. Will it be an impediment to success? Will it tackle the country’s rampant corruption and the still worrisome rural poverty? How will it treat the markets?


This morning we have on the phone with us Jason Overdorf, GlobalPost’s New Delhi correspondent. Overdorf has spent most of the last fifteen years living and working in Asia. He has covered Sonia Gandhi’s surprising electoral victory in 2004, the on-going problem of Hindu fundamentalism, the conflict with Maoist rebels and the societal changes resulting in India’s rapid growth. He has written for Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.


Before we begin speaking with Jason, I have a few announcements. First, remember that the call is being recorded and it will be posted on Passport’s website. Regarding the format of the call: in keeping with Passport’s mission to maximize audience participation, we have compiled questions from our members via email and integrated them into a Q and A. I will lead the Q and A for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Afterwards, we can open up the lines to questions. The call will end after about thirty minutes.


To begin with, Jason, you’ve been covering these elections for GlobalPost. Tell us what you’ve seen. Tell us what have been the big stories so far during the election season.


Overdorf: Well, so far, from the international perspective, the big story has been the incredible spectacle of the Indian elections, even though it happens every five years or more often. There’s something you can’t get over about 750 million people who are eligible to vote, which is more than the population of Europe. This time, more than 400 million people actually voted, they had to mobilize 600,000 voting booths, millions of police and soldiers, try to keep the elections free and fair. You had election officials transporting electronic voting machines on mule back and by helicopter to inaccessible villages high in the Himalayas, you had Buddhist monks trekking to the polls. In one village, there was only one voter, but there were three election officials. And, you know, you had massive queues, two or three hour-long lines of people waiting to vote in 110-degree heat. It’s really kind of humbling for an American with our 40 percent turn out that we sort of put up in our elections.


Passport: Speaking of turnout, was the turnout higher or lower than expected this year?


Overdorf: The overall voter turnout over five phases (the election took place over a month, over five phases), was sixty percent, which most people hailed as a big success. It was three percent better than in 2004, so in that respect, it was probably better than most people expected. On the other hand, there were some disappointments, for these polls, for the first time in India, there was a huge number of NGOs, citizen movements and corporate sponsors, and even Bollywood stars, who were calling on people to get out and vote, sort of in an American-style TV campaign, and other movements. And they’re especially calling on the middle class and the urban Indians. It worked very well in New Delhi, but in Mumbai, where after the terrorist attacks, we saw a huge level of political activism from the economic elite, which was a change, it didn’t actually translate into voting, which was a disappointment for people.


Passport: Ok, and what is at stake here in the outcome of this election?


Overdorf: First of all, since India is the world’s largest democracy and arguably the most stable and progressive democracy in the developing world, the election here is kind of a barometer on the progress of the idea of democracy is making among poor nations. And in this election there was some interest in the fact that diplomats from many different countries, both from the developing world and the developed world, actually traveled to some of the polling stations in some of the remote places to try to get a better idea of how India has managed this feat of performing such a huge polling process with such a diverse population, when you have a similar situation in Pakistan or Afghanistan where its much more difficult or they have much more trouble making it happen.


Passport: What were the top three issues that people were voting on? Was it security, economics, education?

Overdorf: Well, one of the things that was interesting in a way about this election was that people kept on talking about how there were no issues. There was nothing that galvanized everyone that was a sort of “talking point” on a consistent basis. That said, in India, everybody always talks about bijili, paani and sadak. Those are three Hindi words that mean electricity, water and roads. And what that means is that what the people want is basic infrastructure development. What all voters regardless of religion, caste, class all want out of the government. Even in my upper class, middle class neighborhood in Delhi, there’s a major water shortage, so you have to run a water pump twice a day when the hour-long supply from the government comes, and there’s even a pretty good chance that there could be a power cut during this conversation and I’d be talking in the dark. That said, there were a few issues that did come up. One was the Indo-US nuclear deal, but that was really not much of a factor. Prices for everyday goods was a much bigger factor, how to prevent terrorist attacks and how to increase employment.


Passport: Certainly the phone lines have gotten better over the years. We have a nice, clear line with you today. It wasn’t that long ago that it was almost impossible to call India. But talk about how did the current economic turmoil play in the campaigns. Did it change the way people voted at all?

Overdorf: Well, as I said creation of employment was an issue that people were thinking about when they voted. I don’t think it had a large impact on the outcome. We don’t know the results yet, but based on the exit polls, it doesn’t look like that was a major factor. You didn’t see, for instance, a huge surge by the communist parties because they support nationalized banks and that kind of thing. Probably the reason for that is that even though the economic crisis is also impacting India, so many of the voters, something like sixty percent of the electorate are agricultural laborers who are living hand-to-mouth already, so broader economic issues like interest rates and things of that nature are sort of beyond their frame of reference.


Passport: So if the campaign hasn’t really been about issues or ideology, what have the politicians campaigned on?

Overdorf: Well, ideology has certainly been part of the campaign, even if it hasn’t always been talked about because the electorate knows the ideologies of the parties so well. Also, Indians vote in large part based on “identity politics”, such as a person from a low caste, or a Muslim, or a devote Hindu would vote in part, or in many cases, based on how the parties relate to those particular groups. Many of the regional parties reflect that. Like the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is led by Mayawati, a very fiery woman leader who focuses a lot on improving the lives of the dalits, who were once called “the untouchables.”


Passport: She herself is a dalit, isn’t she?


Overdorf: Yes, that’s right.


Passport: There are some thirty political parties competing here. Who are the main players?


Overdorf: The main players are the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, and the communist-led Third Front, or what they call the Third Front.


Passport: And can you parse the different between these parties for us? First let’s talk about the Congress. They’re the party that’s been in power since 2004.


Overdorf: The Congress party is, in a way, India’s oldest political party, if not actually the oldest party. This is the party that led the independence movement against Britain when India was a colony. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, were also both Congress Party people. And it has led India for most of sixty years of independence. Ideologically, it was once a very socialist-oriented party, although that’s changed somewhat, but its main differentiating factor is that it has a secular vision for India. Nehruvian secularism is a lot like the US academics would describe multi-culturalism. It’s trying to manage all the different ethnic groups and linguistic groups and caste groups in India and give them all a voice in the government.


Passport: The Congress party has come under some criticism from their rivals, the BJP, for not being aggressive with economic reforms. Can you talk about that briefly?


Overdorf: The Congress party was, in some part, responsible for the beginnings of India’s economic reforms in 1991. However, since then there has been a decided slow-down in how fast things are happening. Most people attribute that to the fact that they were coalition partners with the communist party during most of their term over the last five years. And some of those reforms were contentious for that reason.


Passport: Currently the Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh, he’s very well respected as the former finance minister who helped kick off those economic reforms. Is he likely to be a candidate for the next Prime Minister?


Overdorf: He’s always been the Congress Party’s choice for Prime Minister, although there have been some voices within the party who have been pushing for Rahul Gandhi to step up. A young leader, sort of India’s version of JFK… or JFK Jr. in a way, more like. That said, the exit polls indicate that the Congress party may have to compromise, they may again have to depend on the left for support, and the left is not a big fan of Manmohan Singh since India signed the nuclear deal with the US, which freed India from nuclear sanctions, but the left believe that they gave up some essential rights that they wanted to maintain.


Passport: Next lets talk about the BJP. This is a Hindu nationalist party, there was a lot of concern when they first took office in the 1990’s. Where do they stand now?


Overdorf: That’s one of the big questions that everyone’s always asking themselves in India. Either the BJP becoming more moderate and less dogmatic about the ideology they call Hindupa, or Hinduness, which is essentially a program for making India a Hindu state. The problem that the BJP faces is that without those somewhat jingoistic views, there isn’t much to separate it from the Congress Party. They have very similar economic legions and in some ways they represent the same constituents. My view is that the BJP isn’t getting any nicer. In the last election in 2004, it was led by a politician who is now retired who is called Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was perceived as a moderate. And now the man who is now their Prime Ministerial candidate, Lal K. Advani was seen as a hard-liner because he was the main leader in a country-wide movement to tear down a sixteenth century (sixteenth, I believe, I may be wrong about that) mosque. Now the hardliner, he’s presented as the soft option to the alternative, which is Narendra Modi, from Gujarat, who is held accountable by a lot of people, for the massacre of Muslims that happened in 2002. So, in my mind, they haven’t gotten any nicer, they’ve gotten a bit more hard-line.


Passport: And finally, what about the communists?


Overdorf: The Communists are more suspicious of the US than either the BJP or the Congress, both the BJP and the Congress are moving toward a closer relationship with the US, certainly over the last eight years, maybe longer. The Communists would therefore probably push for a closer relationship with Iran, partly to get under the US’ skin. They would also probably support a return to supporting the Palestinians in Israel, when over the last few years, India has become closer to Israel itself. And they might be more vocal in their opposition to the US aid package for the Pakistani military. They would also be against most of the remaining economic reforms, like liberalization of India’s labor laws, and relaxing the rules on FDI and retail.


Passport: Foreign Directed Investment.


Overdorf: That’s right.


Passport: India has a vigorous gambling economy, apparently, even though its illegal. And before the voting began, bookies predicted that the Congress Party would get the most votes. What’s the likely outcome? What do you think? Can you make any predictions at this point?


Overdorf: Well, exit polls are notoriously inaccurate in India. In 2004, everyone expected that the BJP would win a comfortable victory and it turned out that actually Congress had taken the vote. That said, so far, the pollsters agree with the bookies. They agree that the Congress and its allies will win enough seats, enough votes, to win the election. But, they will not get the clear majority that is needed to form the government. So we’ll see a week or more of horse trading before we actually know what’s going to happen. There’s already frantic negotiations going on even though they don’t know the results. Every five minutes on television you see a headline flash about one of the major parties meeting with a potential ally. Like its some Bollywood starlet hooking up with some co-star… you know, Sonia Gandhi meets (indecipherable) the headline will read.


Passport: Just briefly, can you talk about what’s the scenarios of sort of a BJP or a Congress or a Third Front coalition would mean for business and the economy?


Overdorf: If it’s a Congress-led coalition, people are saying that it will probably depend on the support of the Communists, which would mean essentially more of the same. They would probably continue their slow pace on economic reforms, because they couldn’t really pursue any of the major items that are on the table, as I mentioned, because the left would withdraw support and then the government would fall. If somehow the Congress wins enough seats to form the government by itself, that would be a cheering sign for business because that would mean they have greater freedom to pursue some of those economic reforms. If the BJP wins with its coalition, they would need a lot of support from regional allies, but they would not need or ask for the support of the Communists. So, it would be a very business-friendly government, probably capable of some more progress on reforms. The worst-case scenario for business is the Third Front government, which would essentially be led by the left. This would not only be a minority government, it would also require outside support from the Congress. Which means the Congress would agree not to vote against them, even though they weren’t part of the government. And that would mean that as soon as the Congress thought it had a chance at winning an election, it would withdraw support and we would see the whole process repeating itself again.


Passport: Another month-long election process.


Overdorf: Exactly. Which would be terrible for business.


Passport: The most important question, perhaps, in terms of foreign policy, how will the results of the election likely affect the on-going crisis in Pakistan and the ability of the Pakistani government to crack down on the Taliban and its borders?


Overdorf: I don’t think the election results are likely to have any major affect on what’s happening in Pakistan. India has been wrestling with trying to find some way of responding to what’s happening in Pakistan. They still blame Pakistan for being complacent in the terrorist attacks that happened in Mumbai. But, yet, they see that there is no dramatic action that they can take safely, given the fact that Pakistan had nuclear weapons, etc. etc. The one thing that might happen is that if you had a Communist-oriented government, come in, they might be a more difficult sell, or more vocal in their opposition to the US military aid package for Pakistan. In India, everyone perceives that package being misused by Pakistan to prepare its military for confrontation with India, rather than actually fighting the terrorists.


Passport: Very good. I think about twenty minutes have elapsed, so in keeping with our promise, I would like to open up the lines to any questions from people listening in. Please be mindful that we have an international connection, so that if more than one person speaks at once, we’re going to get noise interference. You can open your line up by pressing *6 on your phone. So please go ahead, and we’ll see how this works.


Do we have any questions?



Caller 1: Hi, this is David Reedle with a question on the nuclear deal. It seems like that has been quite a big subject in the election there and its something we almost never hear about here in the US. Can you go into details a little bit about how that’s being perceived and what role that’s playing in Indian politics today?


Overdorf: I don’t think it was a major factor in the election, but it still remains a huge issue. I think the reason that it wasn’t a large issue in the election is that its arcane enough that a lot of the voters didn’t really understand its implications and they didn’t see how it would relate to them, personally. But how its playing out in politics is interesting. If the left, the Communists parties are a significant part of the government, they opposed this deal from the beginning, they have a very programmatic opposition to improving ties with the US, based on their sort of Cold War stance that they’ve had for years. So, they’re trying to renegotiate the deal or even withdrawing from the deal, which would be a blow to the US, certainly, but also would be a blow to India because it was a deal that essentially gave India a free pass on its violation or its noncompliance with the nonproliferation treaty.


Passport: Ok, do we have any other questions?


Caller 2: I was wondering, I was kind of confused as to what drives politics there. You mentioned that people vote by identity and caste and that people vote consistent with their sort of life, or something. If there’s no issues being addressed, if things like the economic crisis don’t change things, if things like the Mumbai terror attacks don’t change peoples’ votes, what is it that causes political change in India?


Overdorf: In some ways, things don’t change, which is one of the frustrations that people have and I think that’s one of the reasons that the people, by and large, don’t vote. Its that they perceive that all the politicians are the same, that they’re all just lining their own skins and this kind of thing. That said, one of the biggest factors in Indian elections is always anti-incumbency. Vote out the guys who didn’t do what you wanted them to do the last time. That has changed a little bit in recent years, because I think India has been doing so much better economically that people perceive that something is happening. What happens is elections are fought mostly on local issues, especially this time around, so its not that there aren’t any issues, its that there aren’t any issues that capture the whole debate. Since it’s a parliamentary system, you’re voting for your local MP and not the Prime Minister. Its much more easy to choose him on whether you’ve had roads built in your constituency during the last five years or not. So that becomes very difficult for national media to talk about in any really comprehensive way.


Passport: It sounds like the process is really dominated by rural voters. Can you talk about that a little bit Jason? How does that play out?


Overdorf: Yeah, I think that may be something that’s a little bit counter-intuitive to people who are listening in the US. Because as we probably all know, in the US, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote. I think the second-biggest factor is the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote. In India, its almost the direct opposite. The elites do not vote in large numbers, although obviously some of them do, but the turn out of the poor, rural population is quite enormous. I don’t have any explanation for that. I said earlier, I think the elites are disenchanted with the process because they don’t perceive any change happening. And maybe the rural people are more in touch with local issues and they think their local representative actually has more power to make changes that influence them directly, would explain the phenomenon.


Passport: Ok, that’s an interesting point. We had an interview on Passport recently with the former Undersecretary of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, and it sounded like people were surprised that someone like him would be running for parliament considering he’s so well-educated and so accomplished in his career. But it sounds like that something that might be changing in India.


Overdorf: Right. There’s certainly the perception that politics is a dirty business. As I wrote in a story for GlobalPost a while back, a significant number of the candidates for parliament and for state assembly are always facing pretty serious criminal charges, some of them have even been convicted of murder are people believe that they’re, more or less, no better than gangsters. And the other thing is, someone like Shashi Tharoor would have a difficult time connecting with voters because there’s such a huge gulf culturally between him and the typical rural Indian. Usually what happens is that someone like that will run in a very sophisticated, urban constituency, where the voters are more like themselves.


Passport: Are there any other questions? We have time for one more short question.


Caller 3: Yes, I had one. This is Seth Mandel. I was wondering if during the elections or political discussions in general, it ever comes up that Israel replaced Russia as India’s top defense supplier?


Overdorf: I did not see anything about that in the election. The media does talk about the rise of Israel in this sense, context, and also in the relationship with India quite frequently. However, the politicians have been mostly mute on that issue.


Passport: Ok, very good. I’d like to thank everybody for joining us today, this is obviously a work in progress. If you have any feedback for us, I’d appreciate that. The call will be posted on the Internet. I want to thank everyone and thank you Jason for joining us today.


Overdorf: Thanks David! Thanks everybody!