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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What to Watch For in India's Elections

Elections for the lower house of parliament, Lok Sabha, began yesterday in India. The elections are in stages across the country starting in northeast India near Bangladesh. They don't end until May 15 when counting begins. The purpose of the staggered dates is to allow police and poll workers to move from one state to another. Here Peter Bergen explains some of the unique features of Indian elections. 

In the nineteenth century the United States also held elections on different dates according to when the various states decided to hold them in September through November. This way the president could monitor the results and see if he was likely to be reelected or not. But in the twentieth century elections were reduced to a single common Tuesday in November and the president in a close election would spend an anxious evening watching or listening as the returns came in to the White House over the radio or television. If you watch the election results on one of the networks or on a cable station like CNN, the command center has an array of fancy electronic screens to display the data and the political correspondents advise the viewers on what key indicators to watch for in the battleground states during the evening.

Here is my list of things to watch for during the next five weeks.

1) Do Muslims vote as a bloc or vote individually in the various states? 

With Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, the likely prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Indian National Party, Muslims are keen on keeping him out of office. In 2002 there were anti-Muslim race riots in Gujarat that killed some 2,000 Indian Muslims and Modi did little to prevent them or to protect the victims. Until now he has been denied a visa to enter the U.S. as a result of these riots. Traditionally Muslims have supported the ruling Congress Party. But with Congress widely expected to perform poorly and lose, Muslims could either split their vote or go for the new Aam Admi (Common Man) party. Here is an article from the Times of India giving early indications that Muslims are eschewing Congress in favor of Aam Admi and other parties.

2) If Muslims do vote as a bloc, is it for Congress, for Aam Admi or for some combination of local parties?

3) Who do younger voters, especially new voters, seem to be voting for? 

It is expected that most young voters will not vote for Congress, which is considered to be hopelessly corrupt and economically incompetent. But they could vote for either the BJP, whose virile brand of ethno-religious nationalism, Hindutva (Hinduism) tends to appeal to younger voters or for the Aam Admi. 

4) Do either of the two main parties, BJP and Congress, indicate who its candidate is for the prime ministry before the election cycle is over and the results are known?

Neither Narendra Modi of the BJP nor Rahul Gandhi of Congress has been officially designated as the prime ministerial candidate. Modi as chief minister (governor) of Gujarat is the most visible candidate for the BJP in this election. Rahul Gandhi is a fifth-generation scion of the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has lead the Congress Party since the 1930s. Rahul is the eldest son of the martyred Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1989 while campaigning for a comeback, and Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's Italian-born widow who took over leadership of the Congress Party after Rajiv's murder without ever becoming prime minister. Rajiv earlier had inherited the leadership of the Congress Party after his mother was assassinated in October 1984 and her heir, his older brother Sanjay, was killed in a stunt plane crash. As Rahul was being groomed for the leadership lesser-known ministers served as prime minister while his mother served as the head of the party. 

5) Does the BJP build up an unbeatable lead in the states of the "cow belt" of northern India where most Hindus live?

Here is one prediction that the elections will result in diffuse power and chaos.

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