Polling stations are open today in India's marathon five-phase election where millions of voters in 85 constituencies across seven states and in Delhi are expected to cast their ballots today to help elect a new government. The main political fight is between the ruling Congress coalition and BJP-led parties. Neither party is expected to win by a clear margin (and the votes won't be counted until May 16), so the jockeying is just beginning. To help us understand the importance of this complicated election is Mira Kamdar, Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, Associate Fellow of the Asia Society, and author of Planet India: the Turbulent Rise of The Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.
"The poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote. And for the poor in India, 46 percent are still living, according to the World Bank, on less than $1.25 a day, it's about food, it's about jobs, it's about housing, it's about education for their children." —Mira Kamdar of the World Policy Institute on elections in India
John Hockenberry: So we’re also interested in folks who are watching the elections going on in India. We’ve been talking about South Asia all hour long and actually a few moments ago we were reminded of the picture yesterday of Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama, and Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan projecting a democratic front in meetings at the White House. But perhaps the most profound pictures of democracy in South Asia come from India where polling stations are open today. It’s India’s marathon five-phase election. Phase four begins today. Delhi is one of the key battlegrounds. Millions of voters will cast their ballots today and if you’re here in New York or around the United States following the election, we’d love to have your analysis. Coming back with us is Mira Kandir, Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and Associate Fellow of the Asia Society. She’s author of Planet India: the turbulent rise of the largest democracy and the future of our world. So the future of our world is in a sense at stake, or at least one-fifth of the world in the polling stations in India, even today. Right Mira?
Mira Kamdar: Well yes it is. It’s a white-heat. No one knows what the outcome of this election is going to be.
John Hockenberry: And that’s because neither of the main parties are going to get a parliamentary majority, and there are hundreds of smaller parties in the election so the formation of a coalition is really about as elaborate as some fabrics you can probably buy in the bazaars there in Delhi.
Mira Kamdar: It’s a complex, dynamic, multi-cultural country and the political system has more and more come to resemble that. Every election is more complicated than the one before and this one is no exception. It really is going to be difficult for one of the major parties, the BJP or the Congress, to cobble together enough support to hit that magic 272 seat number to take power.
John Hockenberry: Now the credibility, the historical, traditional credibility of the Congress party is really off the table. The kind of religious issues that really were behind the BJP’s rise are not really as relevant this time around. Is it the economy?
Mira Kamdar: It is totally the economy. It’s interesting given all this going on in the region, we had the segment on what’s going on right next-door to India. This is really not an issue in this election. It’s bread and butter issues. Let’s not forget that it’s the poor in India that vote, so the poorer you are the more likely you are to vote. And for the poor in India, 46% are still living, according to the World Bank, on less than $1.25/day. It’s about food, it’s about jobs, it’s about housing, it’s about education for their children.
John Hockenberry: So what is the credibility of successful business people in India? In the United States of course you can say credibly that I’ve been successful in business and you get elected to Congress or even the Senate. Is that not the case in India?
Mira Kamdar: That’s absolutely not the case in India. You have to sort of make the case that you’re a friend of the common man, what’s known as Aam Admi. That is the line that all the parties try to tell when it comes to election time.
Farai Chideya: This is a much more general question, but I remember my mother years ago working with a number of people from India, and the common language they had was English because there are so many languages, so many religions, so many regions, that the whole idea of doing this kind of election in batches fascinates me. What are the upsides and downsides of that?
Mira Kamdar: Well, it’s really just a pragmatic necessity. You have more than 700 million eligible voters. More than 400 million are expected to vote across the country and just simply to coordinate that in a situation where in many regions half the people are illiterate, for example, it just wouldn’t be possible to pull it off on one day.
John Hockenberry: I love the fact that the population of people actually voting in this five-phased election exceeds the entire population of the United States with about 200 million to spare. That’s amazing. It’s really, really amazing.
Farai Chideya: You know in South Africa there were actions, ballots, to make sure that there were photographs to deal with the issue of illiteracy. What’s being done with the balloting to help people who can’t read?
Mira Kamdar: Well, every party has a symbol, so people know to identify that symbol. X symbol with X party. And then the system of voting, in order to make sure that people don’t vote twice or that there’s just one person one vote: an indelible ink mark is put on the finger so that everybody is clear as to who voted.
Farai Chideya: We saw that a lot in Afghanistan.
John Hockenberry: Right. Barack Obama, in speaking with Pakistan’s leader yesterday, says that the US has an interest in a democratic, healthy, secure Pakistan. That’s a difficult argument to make in Pakistan. But there is a secure, democratic set of institutions in India. What is the US’ interest in the outcome of this election as you see it, Mira?
Mira Kamdar: Well first of all, we have a huge interest in just the fact that India is there as an example of a region of a country that is able to change its government peacefully by the will of the people. It’s kind of a rarity in South Asia, so there’s that. In terms of the actual outcome, if it’s one of the two major parties at the head of a coalition, the policy towards the United States is not really going to change that much. The left, the sort of third way, which I think is a real long shot, though they may be in a position to form one of the two coalitions led by either the BJP or the Congress. They have pledged to do away with the nuclear deal, do away with the US-India agricultural agreement.
John Hockenberry: The nuclear deal, the Nuclear Technology Cooperation Agreement that was signed at the end of last year I believe?
Mira Kamdar: In December of last year. It’s considered the one foreign policy success of the Bush administration in that sort of landscape of debacle. So the Left in India, which quit the Congress party over that issue and almost brought the government down, has pledged to do away with that. But I think it’s a long-shot they’ll come to power.
John Hockenberry: Well certainly the issue will be on the table depending on how the votes get counted and they will be counted between now and the 16th of May. And that is when an outcome will be clear, and we will be back to talk about that when it does happen. Mira Kamdar, thanks so much for being with us. She’s a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and Associate Fellow of the Asia Society. Her book is Planet India: the turbulent rise of the largest democracy and the future of our world.