Two months ago, India conducted the largest democratic exercise in history. The 2014 General Election, enacted in nine phases over a five-week period, witnessed 553.8 million voters cast ballots to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha. The resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) captured headlines and, in effect, diverted attention from a disconcerting growth in gross electoral spending. With an estimated $5 billion price tag, including a cost of nearly $600 million to the government exchequer, the recent election ranks among the costliest in the history of democracy.
On the campaign trail, Chief Minister Narendra Modi touted muscular rhetoric and a “zero tolerance” policy towards Naxalism, but those expecting Prime Minister Modi’s government to overhaul the existing strategy – his plan to tinker at the margins notwithstanding – should not hold their breath. The Naxal insurgency was described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as India’s “single biggest internal-security challenge” and estimated to affect one-third of India’s districts.
In the 2014 General Election post-mortem, much has been made of the fact that the BJP won 282 seats, 52 percent of the contestable seats, on just 31 percent of the vote share. By contrast, in 2009, the Congress got just 206 seats, 38 percent of the contestable seats, on 29 percent of the vote share. What explains this great disparity in the number of seats won given similar vote shares?
In February 2014, India managed a rare diplomatic coup de force when it hosted, in the same week, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif. The timing of these visits is hardly fortuitous; over the past two decades, India has adroitly managed to develop relations with diverse Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Some see this balancing act as indicative of a broader new approach to the region, defined as India’s “Look Middle East” Policy.
In 1988, India became the first country to ban the novel, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, following pressure from the leaders of the Muslim community. Today, India continues its banning spree, reflecting the deep and growing unease with the freedom to express, an unease which goes back to the time when the Constitution was seventeen months old and measures were put in place to check its steps forward.
Since 1991, when the Maharashtra Chief Minister launched a plan to transform Bombay into a “world class city” modeled on Singapore, the face of the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) has witnessed dramatic changes.
In the last fifteen years, India has seen the adoption of an “alphabet soup” of ambitious national anti-poverty programs: a rural connectivity scheme (PMGSY), a universal primary schooling initiative (SSA), a rural health initiative (NRHM), a rural electrification scheme (RGGVY), a rural employment guarantee (NREGA), a food subsidy (Food Security Act), and a new digital infrastructure for transferring benefits directly to the poor (UID). Quietly, these programs are delivering genuine benefits on the ground and revolutionizing India’s anti-poverty policies.
The outbreak of conflict in South Sudan last December led to the shut down of India’s multi-billion dollar oil project in the young country. The instability sent Indian diplomats scrambling to play damage control as ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), the international arm of India’s national oil company, was forced to evacuate its personnel from the region. Competition from China is often regarded as the biggest challenge for India in acquiring global oil resources.
With the Manmohan Singh Cabinet giving up on its planned ordinance binge, a constitutional heist has been avoided. Six ordinances, reports indicate, were under consideration. Some of these were anti-graft measures intended to shore up Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s electoral prospects. Others, including the Disabilities Bill and the ST/SC (Prevention of Atrocities) Bill, were perhaps intended to shore up the social-democratic sheen of a moribund cabinet.
Barring a last minute political turnaround, Telangana will become India’s 29th state in early 2014, which may bring to an end a story whose beginnings had kick-started the first phase of state reorganization in independent India. Telangana will be carved out of the state of Andhra Pradesh, which had been created in 1953 by combining the Telegu-speaking areas of the erstwhile states of Hyderabad and Madras; Telangana corresponds to the area formerly in Hyderabad State.