In Election's Aftermath, Odd Potpourri of Issues, Alliances Emerge

Issue Date: 6/15/2004

Dr.Bal Ram Singh

The routing of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in the recent Indian elections was not only surprising to the ruling coalition but also to most of its rivals. However, the drama that followed the announcement of the election results was indeed the real climax of this otherwise very usual political orchestra.

Sonia Gandhi's ultimate refusal to stake overt claim to the prime ministership became more melodramatic than the results themselves. More on that later. Since the election, political pundits (both real and pseudo) have taken over much space in the news media. Much has been claimed in mandates for Sonia Gandhi, dynasty, communism, secularism, Laloo, rural development, regionalism, etc., and the rejection of Hindutva, India shining, feel good, Modi, religious chauvinism, nationalism, high-tech election campaign, etc.

My issue with the public is for taking these self-flagellating humbugs too seriously. Wasn't the same group of people predicting either an outright victory for the National Democratic Alliance or at least a tally much closer to victory? If politicians failed the ground-reality test, so did the media pundits. There is no reason for us to engage our neurotransmissions at every drop of media punditry.

With two major national parties - BJP and Congress - garnering a similar number of seats in the Parliament (138 vs. 145), election results in India send anything but a clear message for politicians. That, of course, suits them just fine because a clear message puts a constraint on their ability to reconstruct reality. Watch how Indian communists, who are by far the best reconstructionists the world has ever produced, have already started parroting their proletariat view of the mandate this election has provided them - even though they won less than 10 percent of parliamentary seats.

Although there have been valiant efforts to analyze election results in American style, such attempts are futile, considering the dozens of political parties and thousands of independent candidates. There is no mandate visible anywhere, nor an outright defeat. What is obvious is that a potpourri - a mixture of odd issues, odd alliances, odd actions, odd principles and odd people - has emerged. How this potpourri is managed will actually determine where the Indian nation, or much of the world for that matter, will march to. Atal Behari Vajpayee demonstrated a marvelous ability to manage this potpourri during his six-year term as the prime minister of India. Not withstanding an unfinished job in many areas, he deserves a tribute for his accomplishments in initiating major infrastructure projects, providing more local political freedom, economic liberalization, a resilient peace process with Pakistan, and bold steps in initiating close and strategic relations with the United States and Israel.

Vajpayee's potpourri included 26 political parties, with leaders ranging from Mamata to Jayalalita. He had to navigate through many languages, religions, regions, castes, genders and ideologues, which enrich India's celebrated diversity. It is no small feat to emerge fairly unscathed from a political potpourri in a six-year stint. It speaks to Vajpayee's maturity in leadership and statesmanship, and also it speaks to India's entrenched tradition of diversity. There is much for the world to learn from India's experience as a political entity and ancient civilization.

Societies throughout the world are teeming with problems in dealing with the new trend, be it in the form of multiculturalism, diversity, multidisciplinary education and research, interfaith groups, large multinational political and fiscal organizations - the Association of South East Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, etc. Those who have learned to manage their potpourris are doing well, but now with globalization the whole world has become a potpourri.

Ancient and time-tested wisdom only available from India perhaps can come handy. And, India must assert that role. Electing Sonia Gandhi as the leader of Congress Parliamentary Party, thus enabling her claim to the prime ministership is a true reflection of India's time-tested traditions, which many other cultures in the world could easily afford to imitate. That is not to say those who opposed her potential ascension to the prime minister's chair are to be chastised or looked down upon. On the contrary, people of the stature of Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati should be lauded for taking an open stand as a matter of principle to oppose Gandhi to become the prime minister because of her foreign origin.

India has a tradition of "vasudhaiva kutumbakam" (the planet itself is a family). Therefore, Gandhi's foreign origin as such cannot be used against her, at least not in the name of tradition. India also has a tradition of "murti puja," which is exploited by disingenuous people to idolize themselves beyond question. Therefore, Gandhi must open herself to questioning of her track record for loyalty to India, her understanding of Indianness, her experience to rule a country as vast as India, her views on India's diversity, including Indic religious traditions. Hiding behind a dynastic mantle only aggravates her precarious situation.

Bal Ram Singh, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Center for Indic Studies, may be reached at