The Indian General Election of 2004

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

The Indian General Election of 2004


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


ON the surface, the election of 2004 had all the convolutions and contortions, all the passion and frenzy, all the dramatic twists and turns of a great theatre piece. But underneath India has once again done itself proud and lived up to its name as the world's biggest and now one of the greatest of the world's democracies. The system coped. It took the excitements and sensations in its stride and refused to make a crisis out of a drama. The electorate of over 650 million people has such a diversity of religions, languages, tribes, castes and even races, not to mention the worshippers of 5,000 gods, that it is little short of a miracle that the system works at all and the nation must take great credit for its achievement.

Tamils, Marwaris, Sikhs and dozens of other regional peoples stretch across 1,500 miles from north to south and nearly the same from east to west. There are seventeen major languages and the six biggest religions each have a following of over fifty million people. Yet over four weeks from late April to mid May this year 370 millions of them turned out peacefully to vote in a simple first-past-the-post system for a single parliament to govern their manifold and multipartite affairs.

The old adage has it that a democratic system is far from ideal but it is away ahead of whatever is in second place and it is within this imperfect context that India's democratic system has survived and served it well for over half a century.

Given the vast diversity of interests across the 1.1 billion citizens of the republic it is hardly surprising that political power and influence in the 543-seat Lok Sabha is often engineered through more or less stable alliances and coalitions.

The Parties

In the last five years the main party in the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has ruled by virtue of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which it has put together and held together by astute political positioning. Across the nation there were many local alliances which sought to capitalise on regional or specifically caste issues which included the Laloo-Paswan caste axis in Bihar, the PMK-DMK-MDMK grouping in Tamil Nadu and the combination of the BJP and Shiv Sena in Mumbai.

The historic position of the BJP has been right of centre, Hindu-based, nationalist, but in the course of the last parliament it moved to soften its harder edges, often making expedient compromises with individual politicians as well as political parties with other shades of opinion. This became particularly marked in the later stages of the last parliament and even more pronounced in the alliances it made in the run-up to the election. In the event it seems that this top-level manoeuvring had little effect on the grass-roots voters.

It was always doubtful, apart from the alliances, how much if at all, the BJP had within itself moved towards the centre and expanded its own appeal to minorities where it was previously less popular. In the past it has been regarded as the natural political home of urban dwellers and higher castes like the Brahmins and Vaishyas and historically it has had little support from lower castes, backward classes and scheduled tribes. These latter elements in some cases have had their interests represented by their own specific parties or independent leaders but where this has not been the case, their loyalties have tended towards the Congress party.

Some pre-election polls suggested that BJP support had grown among Kshatriyas, Kayasthas, Jats and Yadavs and had increased its support among all categories except Dalits, scheduled tribes and Muslims. In some cases this appeared to have come by incorporating into its own BJP party leadership those prominent politicians who represented backward castes or minority religions such as Muslims and Christians. Many of these had even crossed over from the Congress party itself, sometimes for personal political advancement. …

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