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Editorial
Beware! There is political instability lurking ahead
by H.K. Dua

JAGO RE re is one of the more impressive public interest campaigns that have been running on TV channels during the last few weeks. The message is direct, simple and tends to reach out to over a billion people who are being called upon to elect their new rulers.

“If on the election day, you are not voting, you are sleeping”, is the catch-line meant to wake up indifferent citizens and challenges them to exercise their right to cast their vote and with some thought.

The campaign is more relevant for now than ever before for the nation, 61 years after Independence, is poised at a critical point where a correct direction can help it emerge as a major power of the 21st century while a wrong turn can push it back by several years.

India cannot remain stuck where it is; either it moves forward and at speed, or slides back, losing in time and energy that propels a people on the move. Which way India has to go will depend essentially on the choice the voter makes of the political parties, their policies and their leaders.

The country is faced with a tricky situation. Over the years, the quality of democracy has abysmally gone down with Parliament having lost its sheen and effectiveness in guarding the people’s interests, the executive continuing to remain distant, slow and indifferent to their problems and the judiciary not able to rise to dispense justice fast to those who need it most.

The challenges before the country are all the more formidable because India is now a nuclear-weapon state, has one of the largest armies in the world, and has a substantial space programme. The country has the potential to emerge as a major economic power in the next couple of decades, but, like the rest of the world, is trying to cope with the current slowdown.

Already, almost one-third of the people are groaning under the weight of poverty and its attendant effects. And now the rising number of the jobless is going to add to the social discontent that is spreading fast in one form or another. And discontent is often accompanied by violence that negates the culture of democracy that calls for resolution of issues by public discourse and not by the burning of public property and killings.

While the enormity of the problems before India is forbidding, the country is faced with stark prospects of political instability after next month’s elections. India, which in a decade of political stability, saw Dr Manmohan Singh and earlier Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee give a big push to the economy. They were able to do so because they could ensure political stability despite the vagaries of coalition politics they had to contend with.

Mr Vajpayee went in for exercising the nuclear option; Dr Manmohan Singh signed the nuclear deal to ensure that India is reckoned among the nuclear-weapon states. At the same time, both tried to step up economic growth, throwing up new possibilities for the country.

The newly-gained strength of the country can get dissipated if it slips into a spell of political instability and all that it entails — gloom, loss of momentum and decline in people’s faith in the democratic system.

It is clear even to the uninitiated that neither the Congress, nor the BJP — the two national parties — can form a government on its own after the elections. This is mainly because both parties have over the years lost space and constituencies to an assortment of ragtag regional parties.

By their very nature and the social bases, the regional parties have no national perspective. The governments headed by Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Vajpayee were handicapped by acute dependence on the regional parties. Both have, however, had the capacity to take others along and resilience to carry on with their coalition governments for full terms.

Despite the fact that they enjoyed considerable respect of coalition partners, the two Prime Ministers, at times, have had to roll back policy decisions under walk-out threats held out by one coalition partner or another. Both Prime Ministers could not choose their ministers — a prerogative any Prime Minister should enjoy in a parliamentary form of government. The ministers were nominated by the regional satraps and often undesirable elements found berths in the Cabinet, much to the discomfort of both Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Vajpayee.

If the polls throw up a hung Parliament and neither the Congress nor the BJP can form the government, their dependence on the regional parties or satraps will increase enormously. And if the Congress, or the BJP lose a large number of seats, neither may be able to lead a coalition government. The situation will be equally bad if their allies get fewer seats than they had in the outgoing Lok Sabha.

This could throw up the spectre of a third front government, which in Indian political lexicon has come to be known as khichri sarkar. This kind of a coalitional arrangement of regional parties, whatever the nature of the common minimum programme, will essentially lack a national vision and ability to evolve coherent policies an India will need for the 21st century.

Much will depend on how awake the voters are about the nature of the risks ahead and about who they should vote for to enable the country meet the challenges lying ahead.

The ball now is in the people’s court. They ought to make their choice after giving some thought about the risks of selecting wrong people for ruling India in the next five years.

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