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Public talk on India Elections

India Elections
Date/Time: Jun 02, 2009 / 6:00-8:00pm
Venue: S P Jain Center of Management, 10, Hyderabad Road, Off Alexandra Road Singapore 119579

The significance of India’s general elections and the resulting political leadership’s foreign policy direction to the Southeast Asian region cannot be overstated. The South Asian country is a strategic linchpin in Asian geo-political relations, and is projected to be a global economic powerhouse driving demand in the coming decades, at a time when developed and developing countries alike are struggling in the grip of a global economic crisis.

The level of Indian engagement with Southeast Asia is dependent on the coalition that wins the elections and the strength of leadership in the ruling coalition. Party and personality politics are dominant in India’s elections, with its two national parties, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party fighting for relevance with regional parties. The resulting government is likely to be an unwieldy coalition between national parties and regional or caste-centered parties, as neither national party holds a clear majority.

Should the pro-business Congress party of PM Singh lead the incoming government, we can expect continued efforts at economic liberalization, integration, implementation of agreements, and ramped up efforts to sign the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement. Southeast Asia’s prospects of warming ties with India are considerably dimmer if a BJP-led coalition emerges.. In both cases, ASEAN economies will have to work harder at drawing the sustained interest of a government that may be distracted by fractious relations within the ruling coalition, and a general preoccupation with domestic affairs.

The programme as follows:

6.00 Registration and Reception Cocktail

6.20 Welcome remarks by Dawn Dekle, Dean, Center for Leadership, S.P. Jain Center of Management, Associate Council Member, SIIA

6.25 Opening remarks by President, S.P. Jain Center of Management (TBC)

6.30 Panel Discussion- India Elections

Mr. S Balakrishnan, Political Editor, Times of India

Mr. Manu Bhaskaran, Council Member, SIIA, Partner/Head, Economic Research, Centennial Asia Advisors Pte Ltd

7.30 Q & A

8.00 Closing Remarks by Prof. Suresh Advani, Head of Singapore Campus

8.05 End of Talk

Event Report: 

In his assessment of the India Elections delivered to a 30 strong crowd at the SP Jain Center of Management, Mr. S. Balakrishnan, Political Editor at the Times of India began by hailing the recent India Elections as a ‘great feat’. Mr. Balakrishnan took stock of the logistical, financial and security challenges that had to be overcome for the ‘great dance of democracy’ to take place in an election spanning over 28 states and 7 union territories. He pointed out that the use of electronic voting machines in all states was one such logistical success, given that these not only had to be distributed across the length and breadth of India, but that the Indian electorate had to be educated on how to operate them.

The elections also marked a watershed in Indian politics and history for two main reasons. In the first case, it shattered a long-standing myth that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition will be supported by an ever-growing Hindu nationalist middle-class. In the second, the Indian elections delivered a severe thrashing to the Communist Party of India (CPI) and left-based parties, especially in its traditional strong hold of West Bengal. CPI seats fell drastically from a total of 60 to 25. Both cases underscore a fundamental change in the ideological makeup of the Indian political landscape, and mark the increase in political influence of the Indian middle-class.

Despite its rivals sustaining devastating defeats, Mr. Balakrishnan however emphasized that the Congress Party’s victory cannot in itself be taken as a clear affirmation of its mandate. This is because India does not practice an electoral system based on proportional representation; this means that holding a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha does not translate into holding a majority of the votes. Indeed, the Congress Party’s 206 seats in the Lok Sabha came on the back of a mere 28% of the votes. Further, the Congress Party’s reputation has been tarnished by pre-election corruption scandals, even though it is fronted by Dr. Manmohan Singh who maintains a clean image.

Far from affirming its mandate, winning the elections increases the pressure heaped on the re-elected Congress government to perform. It reflects an impatience in the electorate, especially the middle-class, to see real improvements made in issues that have dominated pre-election debates and politics; issues such as illiteracy and education, social and cultural problems, corruption in relation to government expenditure, national security and a troubled economy.

One of the most pressing problems faced by the re-elected Congress government is poverty alleviation (or mitigation). On the one hand, poverty presents itself as an obstacle to India’s growth and international image as a country poised to storm into the first world. On the other however, the Congress government has been slow to make any policy moves without first considering the reaction from an increasingly powerful middle-class who are interested in maintaining the status quo. The issue is further complicated with the Nexalites (Maoists) gaining strength in poverty pockets across India. This presents a serious political challenge to the Congress government which increasingly finds itself in a bind.

Another pressing concern presented to the Congress government is that of economic reform. In addition to managing the current economic crisis, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government has to consider the economic implications as Indian businesses take off. Currently, there is a lack of infrastructural and institutional frameworks to cater the Indian business and facilitate their operations. Additionally, the lack of a regulatory mechanism perpetuates a culture of corruption that hampers foreign investment and business growth. Policy and judicial reforms are thus urgent and necessary if the Congress government is to retain the support of the middle-class.

Finally, there are geopolitical issues that the Congress government has to contend with. India’s relations to the United States of America and to China will ultimately define the geopolitical landscape of the region in the coming years. The Congress government must carefully assess situational and circumstantial factors, and play the geopolitical game to its advantage. Mr. Balakrishnan pointed out how India’s recent posturing could detrimentally affect its ties with China. Firstly, India’s nuclear deal with America ties it down in a strategic way in that it binds India via commitments made to the USA. Secondly, recent joint US-India military exercises serve only to affirm in China’s eyes that the India is prepared to join with the US in isolating China vis-à-vis an ‘arc of democracy’ comprising of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and America.

Given the importance of China both in the region and to India’s growth as a potential trading partner, India can ill-afford to sour its relations with China, let alone isolate it in favor of the US. Being neighbors, the potential for a strategic partnership with China presents far more tangible benefits in relation to security and economics than with the US. Historically, the relationship between China and India also has serious implications for the entire Asian region; when relations between China and India are amicable and friendly, the region profits.

Despite the complexity of the problems and issues that the re-elected Congress government faces, Mr. Balakrishnan expressed confidence at its ability to effectively deal with them. He remained cautiously optimistic for the future, pointing out that the emergence of Rahul Gandhi provides stability to the Congress party in the long-term and endows it with longevity in the Indian political scene. With continuity of government and a stable ruling party, Mr. Balakrishnan believes that the rise of India is an inevitable event.

Event Photographs: 
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This event was made possible by the SP Jain Center of Management which came on board as a sponsor as well as co-organiser of this event.

Photographs and images used are obtained from publicly-accessible resources. No copyright infringement is intended.


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