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India Vote Could Ease Tensions With Pakistan, But Change Little At Home

Voters wait outside a polling station in Varanasi.

Voters wait outside a polling station in Varanasi.

Siddharth Varadarajan is the associate editor of "The Hindu," India's leading English-language newspaper. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Varadarajan weighs in on India’s month-long parliamentary elections and their impact on the South Asian region.

RFE/RL: What is the atmosphere like during the first phase of the elections?

Siddharth Varadarajan: Reports indicate moderate to heavy [turnout] -- as has been the norm here in elections. In national elections, in particular, turnout tends to be around 60 percent. Today roughly a fifth of the total number of constituencies in India go to the polls -- that's about 120 or 130 [parliamentary] seats. They are spread around the country, really, but are mainly concentrated in the [northeastern] tribal forested belt as well as states like [southern] Kerala, [and] Orissa in the [east]. And it does seem that the people's engagement with this process is pretty high.

RFE/RL: According to the preelection polls, who are we going to see in office next month after the vote is over?

Varadarajan: This is actually a very difficult election to read, primarily because of the shifting nature of alliances and coalitions. We have a multiparty system. We have a number of political players, all of whom have considerable national or regional influence. And as of now it certainly looks as if parliament itself will be hung. No one party or existing alliance is going to win a majority. Perhaps the [Indian National] Congress-led coalition may emerge at the top of the pile. But it would still need to attract political parties who are currently ranged against it in order to form the government. And the same is true for the [opposition] BJP -- Bharatiya Janata Party.

RFE/RL: What are the major elections issues? Has the threat of terrorism been played up as a major issue confronting India?

Varadarajan: The right-wing opposition party -- the Bharatiya Janata Party -- tried in the initial phases of this election to make terrorism and the government's supposedly weak handling of the threat a major campaign issue. But that doesn't seem to have excited the country as a whole, or even areas where these kinds of incidents have happened. I think this election is being fought largely on the basis of broad national issues including the economic crisis [and] the government's handling of the economic hardship. Plus, of course, a host of regional local issues that are specific to particular constituencies.

RFE/RL: What regional implications do you see for these elections? In particular, where do you see the troubled India-Pakistan relationship moving after the elections?

Varadarajan: A considerable amount of continuity from party to party [is expected]. India- Pakistan, India-U.S., India-China relations have tended to follow a well-established routine. There has been some change over the last decade, primarily the drawing closer together of India and the United States, which is opposed by the left -- by the communist parties. In a government where the left has a greater role than they had in the past, I would expect the first major foreign-policy implication of a change of regime here to be a slight dampening of the Indo-U.S. relationship.

But on the India-Pakistan front, I think, if the Congress or the Third Front do well, I would expect an easing of the tensions after the elections; provided, of course, Pakistan maintains its current level of cooperation in the antiterror fight. If the Bharatiya Janata Party wins...even there it is hard to see what avenues for escalation exist. Perhaps it will take longer to deescalate the current tenseness. But eventually relations between India and Pakistan will settle along a golden mean of limited engagement or rather calibrated engagement on the basis of the extent to which the Indian state feel Pakistan is serious about fighting terrorist groups.

RFE/RL: How will the elections play out in the disputed Kashmir region, given that one separatist leader, Sajjad Lone, is running for office?

Varadarajan: I think [this depends] on how successful the boycott calls [are], because you have other pro-separatist politicians who stand for a boycott. And if they are successful in getting their supporters to stay away, then the more conventional New Delhi-oriented Kashmir parties like the National Conference or the PDP -- the Peoples Democratic Party -- may win. But if not, I think Mr. Sajjad Lone stands a good chance of winning.

I think his victory would not alter the fundamental politics of Kashmir and the relationship between Kashmir and India. But, I think, it will certainly open up a very promising pathway for India to engage anew with the Kashmir problem; dealing with elected leaders, dealing with people who have demonstrated that they have the confidence of their own people behind them.

RFE/RL: Islamabad accuses New Delhi of using its influence in post-9/11 Afghanistan to harm Afghan interests. How do you see the Indian role in Afghanistan, given that U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy recognizes such a role?

Varadarajan: I think any expansion of India's otherwise quite limited role in Afghanistan would depend on a number of factors [such as] the success of the “Af-Pak” policy of President Obama [and] the extent to which regional powers like Iran, Russia, China get involved. And also, I think, the extent to which India and Pakistan are able to resolve some of their hostility and suspicion.

I think one of the saddest aspects of the decades-long crisis in Afghanistan has been that both New Delhi and Islamabad look at the country as an arena for strategic competition. The Pakistanis are looking for what they call “strategic depth” in their confrontation or conflict with India. And the Indians look at Afghanistan as a country which could in some sense create problems for Pakistan and hence weaken it.

If some kind of understanding can be reached, ideally between the two of them, this could pave the way for a more fruitful and more effective engagement by India and, I think, by Pakistan as well. This is not a question that depends on which party wins the elections. I think Indian diplomacy vis-à-vis Afghanistan is pretty well entrenched.

RFE/RL: The image of India in the 21st century is that of the world's largest democracy, but one with deep-seated problems, such as poverty, an entrenched caste system, and various insurgencies across the country. Do you see India overcoming some of these problems in the near future?

Varadarajan: Moving on, converting what is clearly a very effective procedural democratic system into a more meaningful, effective, substantive democracy is really the fundamental challenge that Indian lawmakers, Indian politicians, and Indian parties have to deal with. The fact that you have insurgencies, the fact that you have alienation, the fact that you have dissatisfaction, which gets reflected in a variety of ways including violence and armed struggle, is surely proof that the Indian system, although effective in some regards, does not really deliver what it is meant to for those who are really at the bottom of the pile.

I think that the last 65 years’ experience of parliamentary democracy highlights a number of ways in which the existing system is deficient. And the sooner we innovate means for citizens to more effectively govern the country directly, rather than being beholden to elected representatives over whom they have little control, the better it will be.