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India's National Elections and Improved U.S. Relations

Interviewee: Evan A. Feigenbaum, Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 15, 2009

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As India prepares to go to the polls for its month-long national elections, Evan A. Feigenbaum, former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says that Indian politics, once dominated by the Congress Party, is now increasingly dominated by small and regional parties. This change is forcing the major parties to form broad coalitions, which in turn makes the formation of national programs more difficult. Feigenbaum says the United States has had good relations with the past two Indian governments, run by opposing coalitions, but the United States must work to make sure relations are not paralyzed by bureaucratic infighting in the Indian parliament.

India this week launches its fifteenth national elections since its independence in 1947. The process will last for nearly a month with the election officials going from one region to the other. More than 700 million people are eligible to vote. Is there an obvious favorite to win the election?

Predicting elections in India is a very dangerous business because you have at least three blocs of parties that are contesting the election that are roughly evenly matched. Two of these blocs are led by the major two national parties--the Congress Party, which leads a coalition bloc called the United Progressive Alliance [UPA]; and the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] party, which leads the National Democratic Alliance. Then you have the third bloc, which calls itself the Third Front, which is a mix of other parties.

That's a lot of parties.

Over a period of several elections, regional and small parties have really risen in importance and in influence. As a result, in India we're living in an era of coalition government in which you have very large and sometimes very unwieldy coalitions that make it very difficult to move legislation through parliament. This is the prevailing trend now and is likely to be the case after this election. So nobody knows exactly who's going to win this election, in part because the winner is going to be determined not just by the vote count but by horse-trading by the parties to form one of these very large coalitions.

"The bureaucratic challenge is whether you have a government thatís so inwardly focused on the coalition politics that it becomes difficult to move big ideas and big policies through the Indian system."

So what do we know? We know that we're going to see a coalition government. Most commentators think that the Congress-led UPA has a slight edge, but again it will depend very much on the horse-trading that takes place afterward. The most important trend is really the decline of the large national parties and the rise of small parties representing regional, sectional, or caste-based interests. This has vast implications for the ability of a party to push through a national program once it enters the government.

Of course, when I started in foreign affairs reporting in the 1960s, everyone just assumed that the Congress Party would win and that was the end of it.

That was the case for a long time. The Congress is a party with over a century of history. Its leaders led the Indian freedom struggle against the British. And so, Congress has identified itself and was identified by many Indian voters for a long time as the party with a long political history in the country. But what's happened over time, as I've said, is that these small regional parties and caste-based parties emerged that have not just challenged Congress's dominance, but have really challenged the ability of a single party to pursue a national strategy in power. So even Congress, which leads the government now, has only been able to do so in coalition with a number of parties in this United Progressive Alliance.

Including the Communist Party?

It did include the Communists, but last year when the Congress-led government made the decision to move forward on the U.S.-India nuclear deal, the left parties withdrew their support for the government. These parties, by the way, were not actually in the coalition but were supporting the coalition with their seats in parliament from outside in order to give them a working majority. But once they withdrew their support in the context of moving forward on the nuclear agreement, there was again, a lot of this horse-trading in coalition politics. The UPA government was able to stay in power after the left withdrew its support by swapping out those votes for support from other small and regional parties. What it has meant for people of a certain generation who really identified Indian politics with the Congress Party in the first instance, and with the narrow Gandhi-Nehru family in the second, is that there are now all of these other contenders and players and parties and regional interests in Indian politics that really have become the decisive force on the scene.

From Washington's perspective, of course, the Congress Party led by its Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did get through this India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, which is probably the most significant bilateral accord these two countries have had in some time. What would the United States like to see come out of these elections?

India is a democracy, so India will elect a government that India selects. The United States has a history of actually working very well with the last two Indian governments, both the National Democratic Alliance government and the United Progressive Alliance government. The challenges from an American perspective are partly bureaucratic and partly intellectual. When you have these large unwieldy coalition governments that find it difficult to move a national program through parliament without a lot of horse-trading, it becomes very difficult to pursue a program. The bureaucratic challenge from an American perspective is whether you get an Indian government that's able to act decisively on issues that are at the center of U.S.-India relations. This includes making economic policy decisions that will promote trade and investment and will continue the process of economic reform, [and] taking follow-up steps on the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, completing India's adherence to the international nuclear liability regime, which is called the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. It's something that is important to American industry that's interested in the nuclear business in India, and it's something that the current Indian government is committed to do. But any time you have a large unwieldy coalition government, it raises all kinds of interesting issues about the coherence of government policy. The bureaucratic challenge is whether you have a government that's so inwardly focused on the coalition politics that it becomes difficult to move big ideas and big policies through the Indian system.

The intellectual challenge is the orientation of the new Indian government. The good news is that the United States, as I said, has worked very well with the last two Indian governments, and so, there's a bipartisan consensus in India between the Congress Party and the BJP, just as there is in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, around a strong India-U.S. relationship. What would be interesting is if the Third Front, this third bloc, were to come into power in either a minority government or in some other form, or if the UPA comes back with support from the left parties. Because the history of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement demonstrates the left is skeptical about the U.S.-India relationship, and in many areas is flatly opposed to the strength of U.S.-India relations. So depending on what kind of government emerges, we'll face both bureaucratic and intellectual challenges.

Talk about the group led by Mayawati.

[Kumari] Mayawati is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which is the biggest state in India. For her to come to power, it would probably be in the form of a Third Front government. She's somebody that is quite a remarkable individual, but who really is identified in India now as somebody who's really practiced coalition politics †based on caste parties and caste interests. She's of course from the Dalit, the untouchable caste. But she's risen to power by forging interests in alliance between Dalit and the upper caste, the Brahmins. But she's somebody who's not had a record on the U.S.-India relationship. I think that government [one led by her] would be one that would be very much focused on internal politics of caste reservations and other things in India.

The Obama administration's efforts in recent weeks have been heavily focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. There must have been thoughts on including India in Special Representative Richard Holbrooke's portfolio, but I have heard that India did not want to be included in this linkage. How important is India to this whole problem with Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The United States and India obviously share a lot of interests in South Asia, but what's been interesting and important about the U.S.-India relationship over the last decade is that it has really exploded the boundaries of South Asia in a lot of ways. If you go back just twelve or thirteen years--at least in elite American foreign policy opinion--people tended not to talk much about India at all, and when they did, they talked about it very narrowly in the context of South Asia. That's really changed now. It's changed in part because India's economic growth over the past ten to fifteen years has given it global stature and global weight. But it's also changed because of the evolution of American foreign policy over the last decade and a half. In a nutshell, in both parties, there's a broad recognition that we don't live in 1948, much less 1958 or 1968, and that India is a country that has capacity to work with us on a whole array of global challenges, not just issues within the region. Thus the focus has really been on building a U.S.-India relationship with a more global orientation.

For example?

When you go down the list of challenges facing the United States, whether it's forging a deal on climate change or ensuring a successful Doha round or the international trade regime, the United States needs to find a way to work with India.

""[W]hatís been interesting and important about the U.S.-India relationship over the last decade is that it has really exploded the boundaries of South Asia in a lot of ways."

So we have a relationship with India now that's really global in orientation and really not just focused on South Asia. So when people talked about Ambassador Holbrooke's mandate including India, there were skeptical voices raised in India, because many Indians, like many Americans, view the great achievement of the last decade as moving the U.S.-India relationship beyond South Asian issues and beyond Indo-Pak this, and Indo-Pak that. From an Indian perspective, linking India and the Kashmir issue into the issues that Ambassador Holbrooke is looking at in Afghanistan, is something that Indians really oppose.

Everyone says the Pakistan army is still focused heavily on its perceived threats from India, and not so much on dealing with Taliban and that sort of thing.

The Pakistan army has trained for fifty years to fight India in the plains of the Punjab. Both Indians and Americans, and Pakistanis for that matter, view the current challenge germinating from the frontiers with Afghanistan. So that really requires a change in orientation by the Pakistan army, which is very difficult for them because it's so different from what they've trained and prepared for the past fifty to sixty years.

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