Search Friday June 4, 2004

Philip Bowring: A rural protest is only part of India’s upset
Election surprise
By Philip Bowring ( International Herald Tribune)
May 14, 2004

It has been a long while since pundits were proved so wrong about a major election result. The defeat of India’s governing coalition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, by the Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has sent the pundits scurrying to the conclusion that they had been misled by their preoccupation with reform, economic growth and peace with Pakistan. They forgot, it is now said, the 70 percent of voters who live in rural areas and are primarily concerned with farm-gate prices and power and water costs. But is that really true? And do other recent elections in Asia’s developing countries suggest that there is a rural-urban divide when it comes to the ballot box? Commentators had convinced themselves that a good monsoon, a thriving industrial sector and India’s software-driven strides in the eyes of the outside world would not only ensure the continuation of the government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party, but perhaps even give it an absolute majority. A revolt by rural and low-income urban groups, frustrated that economic success was not trickling down to them, may have played some part. Success creates expectations that often rise faster than the economy. As income differences grow, so does frustration. But that is much less a problem in India than in China, whose much greater urban-rural wealth gap partly explains Beijing’s extreme reluctance to move toward a more democratic system. Democracy may not bring prosperity, but it does bring freedom, and a modest amount of political influence. In India, unlike in China, it is not self-evident that the poor rural areas subsidize rich urban ones. For sure, in India a stronger rural base, with more investment in land productivity, would provide a much sounder base for overall economic growth. But that is scarcely a new political issue. This year, in any case, rural areas were mostly prospering, albeit perhaps temporarily, from a combination of good crops and stable to higher farm prices. In northern India in particular, rural voters are divided more by caste than united by demand for more resources. Given the complexity of the regional, caste and class interest parties that make up India’s body politic, no simple explanation of electoral events is possible. But a striking feature of the latest result was the defeat of incumbent governments in the states as well as at the center. The Congress Party team governing Karnataka, whose capital is the high-tech center Bangalore, was defeated as surely as that in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, whose chief minister, Naidoo, is a high-profile technology promoter aligned with the BJP. It seems more likely that these two state governments lost because they were incumbents than because they did not pay sufficient attention to rural needs. At the national level, Congress may have been helped by a rejuvenation of the Gandhi name by a new generation of the family and rejection of the ‘‘foreign’’ label that the BJP had tried to pin on Congress’s plead er, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But more broadly the election may simply show that though voters still exercise their rights, they take a suitably cynical view of politicians, do not believe their promises and are unwilling to let any of them stay in office too long. Indonesian voters seemed to deliver a rather similar verdict last month to the two main parties as well as to President Megawati Sukarnoputri. There, as in India, rural voters predominate, but in crowded Java, at least, the geographical divide between town and country is less clear and everywhere ideological, regional and religious affiliations transcend any politics based on rural issues. In the Philippines, the urban poor are as numerous as their rural cousins. Economics might demand that agriculture receive much more attention. But electoral politics is all about personalities and avoids policy issues. Rural issues barely get lip service. Perhaps surprisingly, it is in more developed Thailand and Malaysia that rural voters are a better defined electoral class. In Thailand, where rural voters are still the majority and the gap between Bangkok and the countryside is very wide, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra triumphed in the last election partly because of a promise of rural handouts and debt reduction for farmers. In Malaysia, rural voters matter because they are mostly Malays in areas where the battle for the Malay soul between the governing UMNO and Islamist opposition is most intense. In the recent election, sky high palm oil prices were worth a lot of votes for UMNO but they were not the substance of the political debate. Rural voters still predominate in most of Asia and they decide elections. But they do not define the political issues, least of all as an urban-rural divide.