Asia Scope

India’s ‘Disappointing Choices’

This week saw voting take place for three of India’s state assemblies– Haryana, Maharashtra and Arunachal. The votes are the first major test for the two main parties since the ruling Congress Party trounced the BJP in a general election earlier this year.

I spoke with our India correspondent, Madhav Nalapat, about the polls, which he believes will end up returning the Congress Party to power in all three states when the results are announced next week. He said that despite the fact that Congress runs what he describes as ‘corrupt and dysfunctional’ governments in all three states, local circumstances, in addition to the BJP’s continued weaknesses, is going to keep it out of power.

“The Congress Party is being seen in Arunachal as best able to stand up to China (which claims the territory, to the horror of its religion-minded inhabitants), while there is a split in the opposition Shiv Sena in Maharashtra (where the nephew and the son of the founder of the party are slugging it out in most constituencies). Add in the uneasy relationship between the BJP and its presumed partner, the Indian National Lok Dal, in Haryana, and the stage seems set for a Congress romp.”

And he thinks inherent weaknesses with the Bhartiya Janta Party are going to hold it back further.

“Since the collapse of the party in the 2009 parliamentary polls, the BJP has in effect been rendered leaderless, with the top crust unable to inspire or activate the base. This thin layer comprises of those society ladies and gentlemen who have been the courtiers of choice by the BJP’s ruling duo, A B Vajpayee and L K Advani, who with the help of their family and friends have run the party in all its avatars for half a century.”

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He says Congress too is run by a small, dynastic group–the widow and two children of the slain former Prime Minister Rajiv Ratna Birjees Gandhi–but adds the difference is that dynastic politics has become second nature to the Congress rank and file.

And he doesn’t see things changing, at least for now.

“As the hangers-on of both these BJP leaders have gained substantially in financial terms during their stints in politics, there are limits to how much they can challenge Sonia Gandhi, who is known to be a keen student of the tactics of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. The senior Mrs Gandhi used to toss dossiers at those who earned her ire, implicitly threatening exposure or worse. Given the almost total propensity of India’s political class towards helping their friends and family, in practice this has meant a very muted opposition response to the numerous failures of the Sonia-led government, primarily its murderous and punitive taxation system and its corruption.”