Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Indian Elections with Orissa focus

Tomorrow the largest democracy in the world starts voting. Parts of Orissa and some other states will go first and the rest will do so on six further days between now and 13 May. The count for all states takes place on 16 May. It has taken me quite a while to get my head round Indian politics but here goes (with apologies for anything I’ve inadvertently got wrong).
There are three levels of government – the Parliament, the State Assemblies and the Panchayat Raj –village level government. The Parliament comprises:

  • the President - currently Mrs Pratibha Devisingh Patil - who is head of state and is elected once every five years by both houses of parliament and the state assemblies
  • the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) – essentially the second house made up of members elected for a six-year term - a third of whom retire every two years. 233 Rajya Sabha members are elected by and from among the State Assembly members under a proportional representation system; and a further 12 are nominated by the President and are an eclectic mix of the great and the good
  • the Lok Sabha (House of the People) – for which the current election is being held - comprises up to 550 members elected directly by the public (based on a first-past the post system) plus, and I must say I was amazed when I found this out, 2 Anglo-Indian members who are nominated by the President of the Anglo-Indian Association. Currently, the Lok Sabha is a coalition government collectively called United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of which Indian National Congress (Congress) holds the leading majority but which also needs the support of non-coalition members for an overall majority. The main opposition party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. In addition, there is the emerging Third Front – locally focused parties who have come together to form a credible fighting force – but which is often dismissed by their more nationally focused opponents.

The State Assemblies – state governments – comprise members who are also elected directly by the people in separate elections at different times in a five-year cycle. Orissa is also voting for its State Assembly – so we have we have a double helping of electioneering.

In Orissa there are 21 constituencies (10 of which are voting tomorrow with the rest on 23rd April), 31,617 polling stations and 217,000 voters. 8 constituencies are reserved for candidates who are either scheduled caste or scheduled tribe although Kalahandi (where I am) is not one of them. There are 6 major parties standing in Orissa and a number of smaller ones. Three are national parties:

  • Congress – the dynastic Gandhi-led party of Indira, Ranjiv, Sonia and Rahul fame - a major liberal political party which led the Indian Independence Movement and has dominated Indian politics since. It is the largest democratic political party in the world. They are fighting on the platform of finding the middle-path to address the global recession; a balance between the public and the private sector; building a modern economy; promoting and protecting employment and livelihoods; and providing equilibrium between regulation and the creative spirit of entrepreneurs.
  • BJP – who claim to represent the country's majority community, are centre-right in nature and advocate conservative social policies, self reliance, robust economic growth, foreign policy driven by a nationalist agenda and strong national defence. They are standing on a platform of putting the poor first, economic growth, security, empowerment of women and the environment.
  • Communist Party of India (Marxist) aka CPIM (not to be confused with the CPI below). The CPIM held the balance of power for most of the tenure of the current UPA coalition but withdrew support in July 2008 over foreign policy issues. Their election manifesto puts forward pro-people economic policies; provision of social equity; consistent secularism; genuine federalism; a complete halt to the privatisation of profitable state firms; and an independent foreign policy.

The remaining three parties standing in Orissa are more regionally focused – their influence at national level resting on which coalition they decide to support.

  • Biju Janta Dal (BJD) - the party of Orissa’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik - currently rules Orissa in coalition with the BJP but has recently broken ties with them – a subject which has been much discussed in the local newspapers particularly whether they will join UPA or the Third Front. They are promising to create of 1.5 million jobs in industry, disburse agricultural loans at a 3% interest rate and the exemption of electricity duty on power used by farmers.
  • Communist Party of India (CPI) – has a strong presence in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. They state they will provide a non-Congress and non-BJP alternative to carry forward the glorious tradition of anti-imperialism, secular polity and independent economic development ensuring economic and social justice to all.
  • Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) – is based in Jharkand, Orissa and West Bengal and actively supports the UPA. In Orissa they say the environment will be their major focus and that they will oppose the state government's decision to allow mining activity to begin in two tribal dominated districts.

Across the country, there are numerous other regionally focused parties standing.

Not surprisingly, the main themes seem to be tackling the economic downturn, security and the poor. As well as discussions on policies, there has also been a lot of press coverage on the suitability of candidates including false statements on nomination papers, discoveries of previous criminal convictions and accusations of embezzlement. At a more personal level the 30,000 citizens of one town near Chennai (Madras) have said they will support any party that guarantees to stop the local crocodiles from eating them. Who will win? A lot seems to rest on who joins which coalition as no one party is predicted to gain sufficient support to govern independently. From the few people I have spoken to here, the feeling seems to be that there will no clear winner in Orissa (with BJD, BJP and Congress leading the pack) but that UPA/Congress will win nationally. Only time and the 714 million voters will tell.

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