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India's remarkable dance of democracy

INDIA, SEEN variously as a country with massive poverty, an information technology power, and more recently as an outsourcing destination taking away jobs, is over the next two weeks staging the dance of democracy. With most of the world preoccupied with the Iraq war, however, the world's largest exercise in democracy -- in which 645 million voters elect their representatives between April 20 and May 10 -- may well go unnoticed. In essence, the voters will deliver a verdict on the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has been in active political life for almost half a century and has been prime minister since 1998. Vajpayee is a man of many parts and contradictions -- a liberal and moderate by instinct who has kept company all his political life with Hindu fundamentalists. He is a peacemaker leading a hawkish party whose dislike of Pakistan is visceral, an advocate for tolerance and moderation in the midst of extremists and religious fanatics. A man of considerable literary and oratorical skills, he has used his masterly ambiguity to make statements that at first appear to please the extremists but are nuanced enough to be politically correct and even unexceptionable.

Ranged against Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance coalition is the Congress Party led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. Giving up its earlier reluctance to work with other parties, the Congress Party has put together a broad alliance with smaller parties. Almost all opinion polls and the latest projections based on exit polls in the first round, which was completed on April 20, predict that Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance will return to power, though they are uncertain whether it will be with a slightly increased or somewhat lower majority.

The election is in many ways remarkable, not the least because the Bharatiya Janata Party led by the 79-year-old Vajpayee is seen as the face of high technology-shaped modernity while the Congress with a much younger leadership is seen as the old guard. The Bharatiya Janata Party is flaunting his leadership and record in office, during which period the country has seen a 6 percent growth, the last year recording 8 percent -- a development it is seeking to market through the Madison Avenue-style slogan of "India shining."

Beneath the surface lurks the issue of whether one would accept as prime minister a foreign-born leader. Sonia Gandhi is the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi's status as a foreigner is a potent weapon for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the cities and among the middle classes, but the issue probably does not find much resonance in the countryside.

The Congress Party's main charge against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is that it has marginalized the minority Muslims and Christians and tries to keep the religious fires burning over the issue of building what is claimed to be a preexisting Hindu Ram temple at a site where a 16th century mosque was pulled down by Hindu fanatics in 1992. A major blot on the Bharatiya Janata Party's record was the communal strife in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 where with the complicity of its party government over 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindus in riots after a Muslim mob had attacked and burned alive 59 Hindu pilgrims in a railway carriage.

From the standpoint of the outside world, a Bharatiya Janata Party government would probably turn out to be somewhat more pro-Western than the Congress Party, where policy making is still in the hands of veterans of the Indira Gandhi era of pro-Soviet, anti-American nonalignment. In substance, there is not much difference between the two parties on the question of Kashmir and troubled relations with Pakistan, but a Vajpayee-led government will probably be bolder and more willing to take risks in keeping negotiations going.

India has a long way to go in the area of economic reform, particularly in government finances, where belt tightening has become inevitable, and in the financial system, which is burdened by loan defaults. In the specific tasks of pruning subsidies and directing them towards the really poor, as well as in selling loss making public enterprises, the new government would face major challenges in gaining the support of the smaller parties in the coalition that are tied to populist policies laced with leftist rhetoric.The biggest challenge before a new government, however, would be to heal the wounds of the communalized politics of the last decade and gain the trust of the minority Muslims and Christians who have been in a virtual state of siege.

Narasimhan Ravi is editor of The Hindu, one of India's larger English language newspapers, and is a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. 

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