India Insight

What Afghanistan’s vote means for India

India and Pakistan, with their competitive strategic interest in Afghanistan, are keenly watching the war-battered nation’s election this week, the second since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

The front-runner of that vote is incumbent President Hamid Karzai who is facing a stiff challenge from his former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. There are more than two dozen other candidates.

While a successful vote could mean a step toward achieving basic political and military stability in Afghanistan, its outcome holds crucial geopolitical significance for India and Pakistan.

Conventional wisdom is that a victory for Karzai will help India. Karzai has lived and studied in India, cultivated a strong relationship with New Delhi and spoken out angrily against Pakistan, especially during the years it was ruled by Pervez Musharraf.

Abdullah and Ghani too have India connections — while the former lived there, Ghani was once posted in New Delhi with the World Bank.

Is Sri Lanka “careering back to where it was” after election?

Sri Lanka’s bloody 25-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May but commentators reflecting on the country’s first post-war elections last weekend expressed little optimism about a peaceful future for the Indian Ocean island.

The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance swept to victory in Sinhalese-dominated Uva province and scraped a win in Jaffna, while the Tamil National Alliance — political allies of the defeated rebels — won control of Vavuniya. Both Jaffna and Vavuniya are just outside the shadow state which the Tigers controlled for decades.

“The victory in Jaffna, the heartland of the country’s ethnic minority Tamils and birthplace of militancy, will give the government a chance to claim it as an endorsement of its handling of ethnic relations, postwar rehabilitation and a rejection of separatism,” Krishan Francis of the Associated Press wrote in the Washington Post.

Women wield power in election wrangling

With the wrangling for allies in earnest ahead of election results due Saturday, women leaders hold an inordinate amount of power in deciding who will form the new Indian government.

Women leaders have always had a role in the rough and tumble of Indian politics, from Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant in the independence struggle to Indira Gandhi, the second woman in the world to become prime minister.

Women leaders are perhaps at the peak of their influence now, with Gandhi’s political heir regarded the most powerful of them all — indeed, the most powerful political leader in the country.

Indian voters – spoilt for choice?

With 8071 candidates contesting 543 seats – that’s an average of 15 candidates for each seat — the 400 million Indian voters who chose to vote sure looked spoilt for choice.

But were they?

Though democracy means choosing who our rulers are going to be, many say there is a crucial missing link in Indian democracy — the lack of inner-party democracy.

This results in the lack of people’s participation especially in choosing candidates, unlike the U.S. where primaries are held by political parties to elect candidates.

Will the Gandhi magic work again?

The countdown has begun in India. As political pundits peer into their tea leaves before the results of another marathon election, the question on everybody’s lips is: will the Gandhi magic work again?

Exit polls show the coalition led by Sonia Gandhi will fall short of an outright majority, but her Congress party has a slight edge over its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But then exit polls in India have been way off the mark in the past. Like the last election.

In the 2004 election, the Congress scored a shock victory over the BJP, which many said was a result of Sonia Gandhi’s tireless campaigning and, more importantly, the magic of the Gandhi name. Nobody, just about nobody, had expected the BJP to lose? Or the Congress to win. Not even the Congress itself.

India’s election forecast: the street or the punters?

India’s bookies are still holding out on the Congress party scraping through a largely issueless election with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the firm favourite to retain his post. They have given L.K. Advani, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a 3-1 chance to win the top job.

But are the bookies, who operate below the radar, missing out on a possible late advance by BJP?

Shares rose 4 percent to their highest close on Tuesday on investor speculation that the BJP, seen as business-friendly, may have gained momentum in the final stages of a mammoth election.

Should the Prime Minister be a member of the Lok Sabha?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not contesting elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower and popular house of parliament.This is for reasons of health and also because the constitution permits the prime minister to be a member of either of the two houses of parliament.Like Singh, we have had prime ministers from the Rajya Sabha earlier but they sought to get elected to the lower house and succeeded easily.As the de facto head of the government, the prime minister is expected to earn people’s approval directly.Mayawati recently took a dig at Singh over the issue.”This Manmohan Singh has not contested any public election…he was brought back door in Rajya Sabha and made prime minister,” the Bahujan Samaj Party chief said at an election rally.”If Manmohan can become PM, why can’t an educated Dalit woman.”This is possibly the first instance in Indian politics where the sitting prime minister has decided to stay away from the race.But should India’s prime minister be a member of the Lok Sabha?The opposition, after initially trying to make it a poll issue, now seems to have lost the plot.The question keeps popping up on internet discussion boards.FOR– Those who support the idea of a prime minister from the lower house say that a popular vote marks acceptability by the people as compared to someone nominated to the Rajya Sabha.– Such a person having earned the people’s mandate is seen as less susceptible to manipulation.– A person’s performance as an MP is seen as a necessary test of his competence and claim to the top job.– Some even suggest that a prime ministerial candidate should seek election with a pre-announced team, something like the shadow cabinet system in Britain.AGAINST– The most convincing argument against the idea is that the constitution puts no such caveat.– The upper house is seen as a talent pool where competent candidates are sent after consideration. This compensates for impulsive behavior of voters which can sometimes make “good” candidates unelectable. For example, Manmohan Singh lost the 1999 Lok Sabha election from the posh South Delhi constituency.– It is also felt that any prime minister would work according to the party’s ideology, membership of a house being irrelevant to his policies and performance.– Moreover, the prime minister is in any case indirectly elected (by the party MPs), so the argument of his having greater acceptance may not cut much ice.– Some feel that if the person is a representative of the majority party and competent then nothing else should count. Others say the proposal calls into question the very rationale of having an upper house, and therefore, needs to be fleshed out.One comment on the online forum points to the question being a moral rather than a legal one.There are two facts to bear in mind.In the Westminster system of democracy, a prime minister from the upper house would be an anachronism.Secondly, the constitution review commission recognised the lower house’s pre-eminence in its recommendation that the prime minister be directly elected by the house in the event of a hung poll verdict.As for the practical aspect, the Congress is contesting around 400 seats in these elections, and finding a safe seat for a politician like Manmohan Singh, the sitting prime minister, should have been easy.In March, opposition leader L.K. Advani raised the issue at an election rally.”Singh will be more acceptable to the people of India if he decides to fight the elections and go to the Lok Sabha,” he said.Did Advani have a valid point?

Do we need sex-education in schools?

A parliamentary committee, with a varied political membership, recently recommended that there should be no sex education in schools.

Sex even if done at the proper time, with a proper person, in a proper place, is a topic that makes many Indians uncomfortable.

The committee itself refused a power point presentation on the question “after going through the hard copy because of its explicit contents.  The Committee felt that it was not comfortable with it and could be embarrassing especially to the lady Members and other lady staff present.”

Bengal intellectuals queer pitch for communists

Amidst the stream of billboards, posters and party flags flooding Kolkata’s chaotic streets in the run-up to elections, a glazed hoarding featuring popular intellectuals of West Bengal is catching everyone’s eyes these days.

“Pariborton Chai” (We want change), reads the hoarding popping up at regular intervals, in opposition of the communists who have ruled the state uninterruptedly since 1977.

The hoardings are part of a campaign with a difference – It is not mounted by the opposition Trinamool Congress-Congress combine, but by a group of powerful intellectuals who have joined hands against the communists.

from FaithWorld:

Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India

asghar-ali-engineer"Bewildingerly diverse" is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai's Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I've transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)

What is the role of communalism in Indian elections?

"The BJP bases its whole politics around accusations that Congress uses Muslims as vote banks and does a lot of favours for them. 'The Muslims vote for Congress and we are against vote bank politics,' that's what they claim. But the BJP itself is basing its politics on Hindu vote banks, (especially) certain castes among Hindus, particularly the upper castes. But when they saw that upper class support cannot put them into power in Delhi, they widened their circle and tried to include some OBC (Other Backward Class) Hindus. Many OBC leaders have become militant Hindu leaders. They are more militant than the upper-class leaders. They see this as the only way to carve out their niche in upper-class politics. Dalits are lower than the OBC. Dalits generally vote for secular parties. Most used to vote for Congress, but now many caste parties have come into existence -- for example, (the Dalit politician) Mayawati. She's also widening her political base by including the upper class.

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