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Indian Election Results Likely To Boost Regional Stability


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi in January) will keep his job in a neighborhood engulfed in crisis and conflict.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi in January) will keep his job in a neighborhood engulfed in crisis and conflict.
The sounds of beating drums and dancing people filled the streets of India this weekend as processions celebrated the Indian National Congress party's victory.

Supporters were happy with the party's better-than-expected showing, as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance secured 262 seats -- 10 seats short of an outright majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the popularly elected lower house of the Indian parliament.

The head of a party representing lower-castes, Mayawati, on May 19 pledged her Bahujan Samaj Party's 21 seats to a UPA government, promising it a legislative majority.

Fulfilling a legal requirement, 77-year-old reformist Prime Minster Manmohan Singh submitted his resignation to President Pratiba Patil on May 18.

But Singh has already taken a first major step toward a return to the prime minister's office, when party colleagues on May 19 elected him unanimously to head their parliamentary grouping, and is in a strong position as he leads his party's efforts to form a new coalition government.

Despite predictions from outside observers following the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, voters resisted the temptation to vote for hard-line nationalists such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Soon after the opposition BJP conceded defeat on May 16, Singh thanked hundreds of millions supporters and outlined his domestic agenda.

"It will be our effort to rise to the expectations of our people, to give them a government which is a caring government, which represents the best instincts of Indian policy, which works for sustained and equitable development, which protects the secular values and will ensure an atmosphere free from communal hatred and violence of any kind," Singh said.

Neighborhood In Flames

Having survived the global economic downturn fairly well, the Singh-led new Congress administration will find it more difficult to manage the many complex crises in South Asia.

"There is a problem in Sri Lanka, there is a problem in Nepal. Pakistan has its problems as well as Bangladesh. So the entire region is in flames," says Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent with "Jane's Defense Weekly."

"And the Indian elections have thrown up a mandate which hopefully will provide it a platform with which to deal with these crises in a reasonable and a measured way."

On May 18, Sri Lanka declared that it had crushed the final resistance of the separatist Tamil Tigers, killing their leader, Velupillai Prabhakran. The development effectively ended the group's three-decade-long quest for a separate homeland on the island for the minority Tamils.

The internal political squabbling in Nepal and Bangladesh is dwarfed by the war Pakistan is fighting against Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents in the country's western Malakand region.

In Islamabad, former general-turned-security-analyst Talat Masood suggests that, despite acrimony in Indo-Pakistani relations after the November Mumbai attacks, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based extremists, Congress's victory is good news.

Finding Common Ground Next-Door

Masood says that "the continuity of policy" and the fact that the previous Congress government was keen on resolving the six-decade-old dispute over the disputed Himalayan Kashmir region has raised hope that the new Indian government might revive a stalled peace process with Islamabad.

Despite blaming Pakistan for nurturing Islamist extremists, India might not like to see its western neighbor being overrun by the Taliban.

"India should realize that it would be very beneficial if Pakistan succeeds in its operation [against militants]. Because if Pakistan is stable, is able to overcome the militancy factor, it will definitely stabilize the region," Masood says. "And if Pakistan, God forbid, [if] we are not able to contain them, then obviously they will spread their influence on India just as we have had a fallout from Afghanistan."

But since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the two South Asian rivals have moved their strategic competition to a new arena -- Afghanistan. And Bedi in New Delhi predicts that competition is likely to intensify. He suggests that while Pakistan and India are likely to resume their stalled peace process, it will be largely symbolic and mere "talks about talks."

"There is going to be some kind of cooperation between the U.S. and maybe even the NATO countries and India -- as a stabilizing force in the region, which, of course, is expected to include China as well as Iran," Bedi says. "But as far as India and Pakistan are concerned, I think, there is likely to be a widening of perceptions on how to deal with Afghanistan rather than a narrowing of perceptions."

Such regional complications might give the new government in New Delhi added incentives to focus on domestic issues rather then pursuing complex regional problems.

Indian financial markets soared 17 percent on May 18, a sign that hopes that political stability will help attract increased foreign investment are not unfounded.

"Why business is so happy, [the reasons are] stability, continuity, and deepening of reforms which have become very important. And, finally, Manmohan Singh," explains Amit Mitra, secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

"The left had said that they will not allow him to be prime minister if they are to support the government. That issue is off the table. [An] honest man, [a] man of integrity will be back on the seat."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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