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"The permanent campaign"

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-06-03

When the 14th Lok Sabha, India's Lower House of Parliament, formally convened in New Delhi yesterday (Wednesday) for the first time after the recent general election, many of the 545 legislators barely made it to the inauguration ceremonies on time.

That wasn't because they were out celebrating their victories or even kibitzing in the corridors; it was more because many of them had gone back to their states to tend to their constituencies - a sign, as clear as any, that Indian politicians have finally started taking their constituents more seriously, and not just during election campaigns.

The election showed that incumbents who'd neglected their constituencies paid a heavy price - defeat.

It showed that rural voters, as much as urban ones, are demanding better accountability from their representatives. And it showed that those legislators who don't deliver on campaign promises - such as many members of the former government of the 22-party National Democratic Alliance - do so at their own peril. The NDA, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was widely expected to return to power. Instead, it obtained only 185 seats, losing to a Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, which won 219 seats but formed the new government with the support of Left parties, including the Communists, who gained an unprecedented 70 seats.

A new-found voter activism all across this country of 1.1 billion people has clearly re-energized both national and state politics. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the Telugu Desam Party - which was founded in 1982 and had prided itself on transforming the state into a centre for information technology - was trounced at the polls. Rural voters felt that Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu concentrated too much on pleasing urban residents and foreign investors; indeed, the joke in many Andhra villages was to ask when Mr Naidu would be visiting Andhra again after his seemingly continuous foreign forays.

This voter activism has been generated by numerous grassroots-based nongovernmental organizations, such as Agni in Mumbai, and the Self-Employed Women's Association (Sewa) in Ahmedabad. It has been promoted by prominent advertising companies through videos and audio tapes. Students are peppering politicians with questions about community issues such as cleaner streets, smoother traffic and less pollution. Even regional and caste-based groupings such as the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Bahujan Samaj Party, also U.P.-based - which represents the Dalits, or lower caste people -- are being increasingly questioned by constituents about "deliverables" - the municipal and social services that they would provide locally.

And so yesterday, as India's parliamentarians busily converted the arithmetic of last month's election into the algebra of governance, a heretofore alien phrase circulated among them: "The permanent campaign."

There was wide agreement that henceforth it would no longer do to genuflect before voters only once every five years at election time. It would no longer suffice to make promises locally and then disappear onto the national stage in New Delhi, making appearances in one's constituency only locally. The election results showed that in India, as elsewhere, all politics is local.

"Sonia Gandhi has recognized this," said Mr Rahul Singh, a prominent political commentator in India's commercial capital of Mumbai. "While the BJP was airing expensive commercials about 'India Shining,' she was relentlessly crisscrossing the country to rebuild the Congress Party at the rural grassroots - where the votes continue to be."

Some 400 million votes were cast in the general election, representing nearly 60 percent of India's 675 million registered voters. The NDA and Mrs Gandhi's UPA actually got 36 percent of the votes each; in fact, the Congress's share of votes fell 1.5 percent from the 1999 election. But the Congress prevailed because of a fractious opposition: some 5,398 candidates from 220 parties contested the 541 parliamentary seats (four additional seats are by appointment), and there were also 2,369 independent candidates. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for example - where Congress allies did unexpectedly well by winning all 39 parliamentary seats- some 35 candidates contested from the Madras South constituency alone.

Now Mrs Gandhi appears determined to work with regional and caste-based parties through her renewed emphasis on "secularism." While that was a code word during the election implying that the BJP was far too Hindu-centric in a country of 17 major languages, 874 dialects and myriad religions, the Congress now intends build alliances with the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Parties. Acknowledging that these parties will most likely only consolidate their grassroots appeal in heavily poor rural communities, Mrs Gandhi is approaching them in a way that doesn't challenge their appeal to regional and caste groupings locally but invites their cooperation in national government.

That explains why Bihar's strongman, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav, a low-caste politician, has been made the federal railways minister, a powerful position - and one that his critics argue bodes well for Mr Yadav to do nicely financially, like many of his predecessors.

Mrs Gandhi has also cannily recognized that "secularism" plays well in rural areas, where the BJP's platform of Hindutva - the supremacy of Hindu culture - simply did not resonate well in the election. In Gujarat, for instance, the Congress did almost as well as the BJP, which controls the state but which had turned a blind eye to atrocities against local Muslims. "Indians may be communal in many ways, but communalism isn't a characteristic of Indian politics," says Dr Rajni Kothari, a prominent political scientist in New Delhi. "Democracy may not have benefited everybody, but there's still a remarkable belief in it throughout the polity."

It is that belief in the democratic process - and in secularism - that Mrs Gandhi is betting on. And if the pomp-filled opening of the 14th Lok Sabha in New Delhi yesterday is any indication, she's on track to be proven right politically. Hopefully, the "permanent campaign" that India's elected representatives have embarked on will also brighten everyday people's lives economically and socially.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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