India votes amid uncertainty

From today until May 13 the world’s largest democracy will be heading to the polls. India’s voters will be electing 543 members of parliament in the country’s fifteenth election. The figures alone are awesome: 800,000 polling booths run by six million election staff will cater to the 714 million eligible voters. Some of the booths will be perched on mountain tops in Kashmir, others placed near the beaches of Goa. The results, to be announced on May 16, will shape the Indian subcontinent for the next few years.

Opinion polls have the left-leaning Congress party of incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) neck and neck, with neither party likely to govern alone. So the stage is set the scene for horse-trading with a “Third Front” alliance and an array of regional and other smaller parties. One potential kingmaker is Kumari Mayawati, who is bidding to become the nation’s first Dalit – or bottom-rung caste – prime minister

Though issues such as poverty and how best to develop the countryside have been debated, in the wake of the last year’s Islamic militant attacks on Mumbai this year has seen national security become a major theme.

Security analysts fear the electoral consequences of another Mumbai-style terrorist attack. If that were to happen – and links back to Pakistani established — the current government would be hard-pressed to act against Pakistan in some. BJP would certainly be braying for tough action.

Even if the elections take place relatively quietly (with 714 million people voting, allow for some violence) India’s relationship with Pakistan is likely to remain fraught. Relations between the two countries have never been warm, but the five-year peace dialogue has now most definitely ended. Barring another terrorist atrocity, a direct confrontation between the two powers may be unlikely, but both governments will continue their proxy conflicts. This is bad news for Afghanistan, which plays host to the conflict. Neither the Congress Party nor the BJP seems to be willing to think through how to revert the Indian-Pakistani cycle of conflict.

The other national security issue both parties have been ducking is how to deal with Obama’s goals of reviving the nonproliferation system. Indian policy-makers of all stripes want to implement the US-India nuclear accord, and worry that the new US nonproliferation agenda will undercut this. But the Indian establishment does not appear to have  thought through how New Delhi might participate in an inclusive nonproliferation regime.

Whoever ultimately wins this week’s election — BJP or Congress — will have to tackle India-Pakistan relations and the US nonproliferation agenda  — the Obama administration is unlikely to give them much choice.