The Wall Street Journal has run this article on India Election results 2009 and independent reform candidates.The same has been reproduced here.
Hopes for a new batch of independent, reform-minded politicians who would break the status quo in New Delhi have largely been dashed, in part because India’s middle class has yet to find its political voice.
With widespread disgust with political establishment’s failure to protect Mumbai from November’s terrorist attacks as well as a burgeoning youth vote, the national elections were touted by some analysts as the year when reform candidates might start to clean up a system often tainted by bribery and often characterized by caste-based voting. Instead, the ruling Congress party scored a decisive victory and its United Progressive Alliance is set to return to power.
The reform candidates, usually running as independents, tried to appeal to India’s rising middle class, which dominates the business world but has never voted in large numbers. But Saturday’s results showed that other than those backed by big political parties, reform candidates performed poorly, suggesting that the middle class remains a relatively weak force in Indian politics. In part it is because they are massively outnumbered by poor, rural voters but also because they continue to stay away from the polls.
Around 46% of the candidates that ran this year were independents. That is the highest percentage in 13 years. Of the 3,150 independent candidates that ran in the national election, early election results suggest less than 10 have won.
“We did not expect to do very well,” said Mona Shah a surgeon who lost running for the Professionals Party of India a party that was created to represent India’s middle class. “What we have achieved is visibility”.
The number of independents running climbed 32% from the previous election in 2004 — spurred by concerns about governance and corruption and frustration that India’s government is not keeping up with the evolution of the private sector.
While they earned a lot of attention from the English language media, most of the independent reform candidates failed to get many votes. Among losing reform candidates were: G. R. Gopinath, managing director of Deccan Aviation, who founded India’s largest low-cost airline, running for Parliament from Bangalore; Meera Sanyal, country executive of ABN Amro Bank, running in Mumbai South; and businessman Ajay Goyal, running in Chandigarh.
After being terrorized during the Mumbai attacks down the street from her home, middle-class voter Ila Rallan registered to vote for the first time in the more than 10 years she has been eligible.
She was tempted by the candidate Ms. Sanyal because of her business background and an understanding of middle-class voters. But in the end Ms. Rallan went with the candidate from the ruling Congress party, figuring he had a better chance of bringing about change from within the system.
“The blasts showed us how inefficient government has been and that there are issues that have not been dealt with,” says Ms. Rallan, who helps manage her family business. “But I think having a party behind somebody is more important if you need a voice in Parliament and want to pass bills.
The problem, analysts say, is that the middle class is still a minority and most don’t vote. In swanky South Mumbai, where the late November attacks killed more than 160, only 40% of eligible voters voted, down from 44% in the last election in 2004. The turnout also dipped nation wide. 56.7% of eligible voters voted compared to 57.6% last election.
Mumbai voters weren’t scared of more attacks — they were indifferent. As they were given a day off for polls, many just used it to stretch a long weekend and left town.
“The typical middle class attitude is that politics is a very dirty activity and people with education and values don’t go into politics,” said Shashi Tharoor, a former Under Secretary General of the United Nations who stood for a parliamentary seat in the southern state of Kerala with the ruling Congress party. “The educated middle class is the engine of democracy in the U.S. where in India it is exactly the opposite. They cannot be bothered to stand in the sun to vote.”
Even his mother and grandmother didn’t want him to get involved politics. Still, Mr. Tharoor is considered one of the potential new political voices of the middle class. He chose to run with the Congress party for a better chance of winning.
Though Mr. Tharoor was a first time voter and first-time candidate this election, he won the contest for a seat in Parliament in the southern state of Kerala. He said he did it by reaching out to the rural and poor voters as urban voters make up less than 40% of his constituency.
Corporate and professional candidates, campaigning without parties to promote reform on their own, however, did not fare as well.
“Professional independent candidates cannot be taken seriously,” says Mahesh Rangarajan, a history professor at Delhi University. “Excellence in arts, science or business does not qualify you for excellence in politics or give you the ability to communicate, comprehend or solve people’s problems.”
Money is also important to run a campaign. Most independent candidates do not have access to the kind of money that political parties have unless they are wealthy enough to fund themselves.
And often voters won’t give them the thumbs up because they have not put in the kind of time required in the electoral process, says Mr. Rangarajan. Voters want to know what their candidates have done for them and not just what they plan to do. Most independents do not have a track record in public service to point to.
Despite the defeats, reform candidates say this is just the beginning. Most plan to continue to be involved in politics and come back next elections with more support, more money and their own parties.
“We didn’t win those 100,000 votes but we did win in raising issues for the city,” said Manjeet Kripalani, spokeswoman for the campaign for banker candidate, Ms. Sanyal. “She has done a monumental job of raising issues and putting issues on the table. It is the first step in a long journey.”