India's Political Despair

There is an overwhelming sense of disconnect among the citizens of India for the upcoming 2014 general election. Not even the current €560 million VVIP (very very important persons) helicopter procurement scandal, which has ensnared retired Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, a former chief of the Indian Air Force, and his relatives, has disturbed the ennui in the populace.

India's shrill TV news anchors line up politicians, retired judges and social activists every night with exaggerated outrage to debate abuse of power, corruption and even murder but nothing changes.

Despite the campaign of reformer Anna Hazae, which drew millions of protesters last year, ther appears little shame among the political class. About a third of sitting members of parliament have serious criminal cases pending against them. Long misused and abused by politicians, the lowly-paid police are demoralized and cynical. The courts carry a backlog of cases that take forever to be heard. Citizens have lost faith in the institutions of the state. The world's greatest democracy is dysfunctional and no one seems to care anymore -- least of all the electorate.

India is a nation without leadership. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has long given up any pretense of vision or mission for the country. He is waiting to be released from his thankless burden next year. He would have gone earlier if the party had a credible replacement. True power remains behind the curtain with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her coterie of confidants.

Another Italian job

Opposition politicians were quick to bray 'Italian connection' when the luxury helicopter scandal broke -- a hark back to the Bofors scam of the 1980s which also involved an Italian arms dealer, Ottavio Quattrocchi and the Nehru-Gandhi family. That probe faded inconclusively, like probes into so many other scams, after the initial furore.

The Bofors scandal cost Rajiv Gandhi his clean image and got the Congress routed in the 1989 general election although the New Delhi High Court quashed charges of bribery against Rajiv and others in early 2004. Congress was returned to office in the mid-2004 general election.

Prosecution in Italy led to the arrest this February of Guiseppe Orsi, CEO and chairman of Finmeccanica, the Italian company behind the Augusta-Westland helicopter deal. Kickbacks of €51 million (US$68 million) to senior politicians in Italy and India along with former Air Force Chief Tyagi and his three cousins, surfaced during the trial. For comparison, the Bofors kickbacks to politicians and defence officials amounted to US$12m.

The easy access which the Italian arms dealers had to the Ministry of Defense and military chiefs, reinforces the suspicion that the Congress high command ghosts lurk somewhere in the background. Elections cost a lot of money and ruling parties in the Third World routinely hack defensce procurement and infrastructure contracts to siphon off taxpayer funds. Individuals in the pipeline get rewarded to front for politicians, facilitate the theft and keep their mouths shut.

Three highly placed men intimately involved in the copter deal are beyond the arm of the law by virtue of their lofty constitutional positions: Pranab Mukherjee was Minister of Finance in 2005 when the contract was approved; Bharat Vir Wangchoo was director of the Special Protection Group set up after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and MK Narayanan was National Security Advisor. Pranab is now President of India, Vir Wangchoo is Governor of Goa and MK Narayanan is Governor of West Bengal. All three are protected by legal immunity.

Congress loses support but no swing to BJP

One would normally expect disgust with the ruling party to swing votes to the opposition. The India Today-Nielsen 'Mood of the Nation' poll of Jan 2013 projected a -7.7 percent% swing away from the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. But poll responses indicate that will translate to only a paltry +1.6 percent gain for the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Hindu fundamentalist-backed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The reality in Indian politics since 1989 is that no single party can command enough seats in parliament to form a majority government. The 2004 general election saw the UPA gain majority by cobbling formal and informal alliances with smaller regional parties.

The bulk of the swing away (+6.6 percent) from the UPA, according to the pollsters, will benefit the smaller regional parties fixated on local issues far from the center in Delhi. Both the Congress and the BJP have presence in the north but are weak in the southern and eastern states.

The increasing reliance for parliamentary support on a mixed bag of regional parties - few of whichm ideologically align with either the Congress or the BJP, contributes to policy paralysis at the center. The smaller parties enjoy disproportionate leverage in horse-trading for ministerial posts without the experience or administrative competence to discharge their duties.

The legacy of the despotic leadership and paranoia of Indira Gandhi in the late 1970s keeps a capable crop of Congress leaders in Delhi while lesser mortals head states. Indira believed in keeping her rivals close where she could watch them. The BJP has a surprisingly strong set of chief ministers in their states. The BJP's best talent is not at party HQ in Delhi.

BJP ambivalent about next prime minister

While the Congress has only itself to blame for wasting its mandate, the BJP is in disarray over its leadership. The chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, having just won a resounding third term, is the best candidate for the prime ministership in a BJP-led coalition in 2014.

However the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu-nationalist movement which dictates political policy to the BJP, seems ambivalent. Modi's economic management in Gujarat and his modernist leadership are winning him political points across the country. He is less dependent on RSS patronage than most other BJP politicians. That discomforts the RSS.

To the rest of the country Modi comes across as a capable manager who gets the basics right while other chief ministers flounder. He runs a disciplined civil administration and has consistently delivered economic growth above the national average. To digital natives who would figure significantly in the 2014 election, Modi is a politician who understands their culture and uses social networking platforms to connect with them.

Modi's major black mark that he has great difficulty removing is his role in the horror of the 2002 Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots. Many in the country believe he allowed the massacre of Muslims by looking the other way.

The Indian middle class is far more comfortable with a secular India than a narrowly Hindu one. They embrace meritocracy and open opportunities without the baggage of caste divisions and feudal social entitlements. Their instincts are to support secular parties and politicians. It is a polity for Congress to lose, which they effectively have done.

(Cyril Pereira [] is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.)