Elections in India: Why the slide?

Elections are underway in India. The last ballots have been cast, and the vote count is scheduled for tomorrow (May 13). Exit polls indicate that the BJP will lose some seats, while Congress will gain some seats. Nothing definitive.

The big news so far is the evident defeat of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu (an ally of the BJP) in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu is responsible for Hyderabad's growth as a high tech hub (other cities in India, including Madras, have also joined the game). Naidu lost his seat in a crushing defeat; Chandrashekhar Reddy of the Congress Party will probably take his place.

Other than that, the BJP may lose its absolute majority in parliament, but I doubt it will be by much. They will have to find new coalition partners. Should that be hard? All the local and caste parties, along with the backdoor horsetrading by which coalitions are built are beyond me. Most, er, 'pundits', seem confident that the BJP will retain control at the center.

The BJP has seemed tame lately. They have been talking less about Hindutva and more about 'bijli, sadak, pani' (electricity, roads, water). They're not exactly saints -- they take plenty of potshots against Sonia Gandhi for her foreign birth. And those of us on the left don't forgive them for sins past, but then, the left is not especially influential on the national stage these days. The bottom line is, the economy is doing great: 8 percent growth last year, probably a similar number this year, contingent on the monsoon. There has been major progress on the road to peace with Pakistan. So why the slide?

I have two thoughts. One is that the slide has little to do with new ideas or initiatives in the Congress Party -- I've seen nothing that has indicated much new going on there. Instead, I wonder if the slide of the BJP might actually triggered by their turn to non-divisive rhetoric. If so, it's a depressing comment on the nature of democratic politics. But it may be true everywhere: 1) it is always easier to get people's attention in a crisis than it is in times of prosperity; 2) it is always easier to gain mass support by demonizing a minority than by advocating cooperative striving after abstract goals (development, progress, prosperity).