The shifting sands of Indian politics
"There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever. This last one is the worst". Aravinda Adiga, in White Tiger.
After the Mumbai shootings last year, things looked bad for the Congress Party. But India's bookmakers now put Manmohan Singh, the ruling Congress party prime minister, as the odds on favourite for riding home in the coming Indian elections, when the voting figures are finally released on May 16th and the horse trading in the backroom deal begins.
The fly in the ointment this time around could be this new left-led alliance, the Third Front, that is pitted against the two stalwarts, the Congress Party and the BJP - the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. It is difficult to get the measure of this Third Front. It is a grouping of local regional parties (which in India are crucial in the horse trading) that may be very active in particular states. It also includes the communists, again a party that is still very strong in some states and which has often strongly opposed Manmohan Singh in trying to bring more liberal changes to India. Small parties can cause big havoc in India. If Congress gets a slender majority in the elections (which it may well do), the Third Front could end up being the kingmaker. It can then throw its weight around and demand the impossible. The premier's post, for instance.
What interests me is the progress that Kumari Mayawati has made in politics. She is a dalit (what used to be called the untouchables), and is the leader of Bahujan Samaj (Majority of the People) Party which has a substantial following across some states, including her home state - the huge Uttar Pradesh in the north.
Its population, 190 million (more than Indonesia), makes it the fourth most populous country in the world. It's fields are fertile. Yet its farmers get very little benefit from the state (apart from very cheap electricity). A large portion of its population are farmers (see Wiki) and they are very poor too; UP is the third poorest state after Orissa and Bihar, next door to UP. The state is home to 8 percent of the world's poorest people! And UP is corrupt of course. Although Uttar Pradesh, for example, has the highest ratio of road workers in the world, and pays them three times the market going rate, its roads are in a terrible mess. The farmers cannot get their produce to market! A third of the fruit and vegetables rot before they arrive at local markets. Currently Behenji ('tallest leader' as she is called) Mayawati is Uttar Pradesh's chief minister, for the fourth time. She has enormous power in the state and is well able to hold her own at the hustings. According to Edward Luce (In Spite of the Gods - I know, I keep quoting him!), 'few leaders in today's India can bank on as much loyalty from their volters as Mayawati. Electoral analysts say that her BSP has the most disciplined vote bank of any party in India.'
Uttar Pradesh is also interesting for having 30 million Muslims, a footlose political grouping often ignored by other parties. They often support parties led by the likes of Mayawati: at least she knows what discrimination and isolation are like so she understands some of their concerns. Not that all Muslims are discriminated against; some are highly successful. Maywati does campaign strongly on minority issues and is detrmined to get more dalits in government jobs. Although I don't really understand the complexities of Indian caste politics, as an outsider, I can see its possible significance in this election what with the power Mayawati has to draw votes. Kanchan Chandra, an MIT researcher who has surveyed voters in UP, says that sharing a caste background can be hugely significant in India when you want to get something done, especially if the politicians knows you voted for them. "Elections in a patronage-based democracy (like India) are in essence covert auctions in which basic services, which should in principle be available to every citizen, are sold instead to the highest bidder".
Uttar Pradesh is an important state, electorally. It has 84 of the country's 543 constituencies and is home to about a sixth of India's parliamentary seats. Yet both main parties cannot match the influence here of these local but significant parties. Behenji Mayawati has said that she will not throw in her lot with the Third Front. But she may join them after the votes are caste. She is enormously ambitious - for her party and herself (see NowPublic's Rahul's post on her 32 weeks ago ('India's low caste leader...'. ).
The bookmakers don't put Megawati's chances of becoming the next prime minister very high. Her odds this week were twentyfive to one, according to the BBC.
But I am still going to watch very closely as this year's politics unfold in Uttar Pradesh.