In India, nothing went according to plan

Sunday March 18 2012

By SHASHI THAROOR

April might be the cruellest month, but, for India’s major political parties this year, March was fairly brutal.

On March 6, following an American-style “Super Tuesday” of its own, India announced the results of five state assembly elections, which confounded pollsters, surprised pundits, and shook a complacent political establishment.

Nothing went according to script. The Congress party was expected to come to power in Punjab, where chronic “anti-incumbency” has traditionally precluded the re-election of any state government. Instead, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal won convincingly.

By contrast, in the northeastern state of Manipur, Congress was expected to yield ground to critics of its long-serving chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, who instead pulled off an overwhelming victory.

In the tourist paradise of Goa, the Congress government expected to be re-elected, but was trounced by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party.

But the greatest surprise was in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (with a population of 200 million), where 402 legislators were elected to its massive state assembly.

The incumbent chief minister, Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won an absolute majority last time by forging a “rainbow coalition” composed of her Dalit constituency and upper castes, was summarily ousted.

What does all of this portend for India? The obvious fear is that the apparent weakening of both major national parties (Congress and the BJP) will lead to political instability.

But India takes electoral convulsions in its stride, and the results triggered no turmoil in financial markets.

Thanks to the vagaries of the parliamentary system and the country’s sprawling size, elections seem to take place somewhere every six months, and investors and political analysts are rarely perturbed by even the most unpredictable outcomes.

Congress depends on the support of a number of coalition partners, as well as backing from non-government parties like Samajwadi that do not support the BJP-led opposition, to pass the annual budget and survive confidence votes.

But, even if an early general election cannot be ruled out completely, it seems implausible that either party will feel it has much to gain from precipitating the collapse of the national government.

Mr Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under-Secretary General, is a member of India’s parliament.