Pre-election public opinion polls have predicted a fragmented election outcome [Reuters] 

There is nothing quite like an Indian general election. In scale, complexity, duration and decibel level, it can be identified without hyperbole as one of the wonders of the world.

But fascination with the process must not lead to an uncritical attitude towards the outcomes, writes veteran Indian journalist N Ram.

Between April 16 and May 13, close to 60 per cent of 714 million eligible Indian voters will go to the polls.

They will do so in five phases, in mostly sweltering weather, to elect 543 members of the 15th Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament where the core of popular sovereignty resides, at least in democratic theory.

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In charge of the whole exercise is an election commission, vested by the constitution with "the superintendence, direction and control of elections" and increasingly from the early 1990s pro-active in a game effort to curb the rumbustiousness, the venality, the muscle power, and other excesses that come with being the world's most populous, diverse, and wilful elective democracy.

What will be mind-boggling to outsiders is the army of four million civil staff members and two million security personnel who will be deployed for the conduct - and protection - of the democratic exercise.

But fascination with the process must not lead to an uncritical attitude towards the outcomes.

Virtually every pre-election public opinion poll has predicted that the outcome of the 15th general election will be fragmentation and political instability of a kind that has not been witnessed in India for a decade.

It is not for nothing that this particular contest is being described as the Great Indian Open.

This is not particularly a problem arising from coalition politics because that has been a given for two decades now.

Decline of Congress

The long-term trend behind this has been the decline and degeneration of the dominant party of the freedom struggle, the Congress, which grew flabby, corrupt, and arrogant through two decades of wielding unchallenged power at the federal level and in most States.

The first turning point came with the 1967 elections, which saw the dominant party's parliamentary majority reduced substantially and the party losing power simultaneously in several states.

Leftist parties see the election as their chance to seize the initiative and set the terms [EPA]
But 1989 was the point of no return for single party dominance at the centre: from then on, there has been no question of any party ruling with a parliamentary majority of its own.

In fact, all nine of the governments in office in New Delhi between 1989 and 2009 have been minority dispensations living on external support and eight of them have been coalitions (the exception was the PV Narasimha Rao government that was in office, by hook and crook, between 1991 and 1996).

Given the steady decline in the Congress party's share of the popular vote (from 49.10 per cent in 1984 through 39. 53 per cent in 1989, 36.2 per cent in 1991, 28.80 per cent in 1996, 25.82 per cent in 1998, and 28.30 per cent in 1999 to 26.53 per cent in 2004); the inability of the party of the Hindu right, the Bharatiya Janata Party (despite its rapid electoral advance between 1984, when it had a 7.74 per cent vote share, and 1998, when it peaked at 25.59 per cent), to go much beyond the 25 per cent threshold; and the instructive fact that between them the Congress and the BJP could not poll even 50 per cent of the national vote in 2004, coalitionism has been the only game in New Delhi.

The chattering classes may not like this but nothing else is even remotely conceivable.

'Era of coalitionism'

What can be said in favour of the "era of coalitionism" is this: As in the case of the Indian press, the diversity and pluralism in the political system reflects more realistically and inclusively than anything seen in the pre-coalition era the vast regional, religious, caste, linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural heterogeneity of India.

If over-centralisation of power, marked by some authoritarian tendencies, characterised the first two decades of independence, this is "political federalism" with a vengeance.

The BJP, which was supposed to pursue its pipe dream of "Hindu Rashtra", began to understand this reality well before the Congress, which continues to fantasise about a return to single-party rule, did.

But the parties that have region-specific bases and have resourcefully grown them by appealing to caste, regional pride, ethnicity, or vaguely "socialist" populist ideologies, as well as the left parties, have understood the reality better than either of the two leading all-India parties. And in 2009 they see their chance to seize the initiative and set the terms for now and the future.
 
Between 1999 and 2009, the two leading parties in the political system, first the BJP and then the Congress, were able, on the strength of emerging as the single largest party, to cobble together viable coalitions with a measure of external support and complete their terms, even managing in the process an unexpected continuity of domestic (especially economic and security) and foreign policies.

In most cases, it was the magnet of power that brought the constituent parties into the BJP-led or Congress-led coalitions.

But naked opportunism was also dressed up in pseudo-ideological clothes and given some respectability through the National Agenda for Governance (1998-2004) and the National Common Minimum Programme (2004-2009).

Major weaknesses

There are at least four major weaknesses that can be observed as political India heads into elections.

The first is the absence of any serious ideological and programmatic basis for the current and prospective coalition arrangements.

The Congress and BJP election manifestos are virtually indistinguishable on most counts, so much so there have been charges of intellectual property right infringement.

The BJP has been able to avoid the malaise of dynastic politics but not factionalism [AFP]
While the Congress has moved closer to the BJP's rightwing position on security and foreign policy issues, the BJP has sought to give the impression of moderating its virulent communal stance by making vague development-oriented promises to India's 155 million Muslims.

Such "mainstreaming" of policy stances, it has been observed by political commentators, makes for shallow and cynical politics - when the democratic imperative is ideological and programmatic differentiation that offers a clear and meaningful choice to voters.

Secondly, the democratic character of most political organisations has been dangerously eroded by the absence of inner-party democracy, including genuine organisational elections, internal debate, and collective decision-making.

Dynastic politics and its inseparable associate, cronyism, are taking a huge toll on political democracy.

The Congress, back for a decade under the hegemony of the Nehru-Gandhi family, has become the role model for regional parties of diverse hue. Only the left parties and the BJP among the national parties seem immune to this malaise but factionalism, springing from different roots, has begun to affect their functioning as well.

Muscle power

A third problem is the tolerance of, and in some cases active reliance on, those who muscle their way in politics, notably in election season.

Not all politicians who have criminal cases registered against them can be said to have "criminal antecedents" (to cite the middle-class term of art in the present discourse on criminality in politics). But knowledge that 93 members of the 14th Lok Sabha had criminal charges pending against them is chastening.

It says a great deal about the value systems of the political parties that chose their candidates.

At the legal level, the presumption of innocence (unless a person is proved guilty and convicted) acts as a shield against disqualification for the truly criminal elements in various political parties.

But the public perception of rampant criminality contributes to an exaggerated picture of the state of politics, breeding cynicism and apolitical attitudes, especially among the middle classes. This cannot possibly be good for democracy.

Code violation

Finally, the conduct of several parties, their leaders, and candidates thus far in this election campaign has tested the patience of the Election Commission of India and exposed its lack of teeth in enforcement, while providing riveting copy and footage to fuel newspaper circulations and television ratings during a time of economic slowdown.

A Model Code of Conduct for the guidance of political parties and candidates, "evolved" by the election commission through a "consensus" of political parties, is supposed to be in force.

But many of the parties and their leaders have already exercised their vocal chords and flexed their muscle in ways that suggest that, for now and the future, their way of honouring the code is in its breach.
 
The early stage of the 2009 campaign has gone beyond previous experiences in featuring hate speech, flagrant appeals to communal prejudices, personal attacks, incitement to violence, and tit-for-tat threats, all in defiance of the code.

Several criminal cases have been registered under orders from the commission but the political parties seem to have taken them in their stride as part of the electoral game.

The hope is that with such a start, things can only improve.

N Ram is editor-in-chief of The Hindu and group publications based in Chennai, India. The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera