The Elephant’s Choices

New Delhi – A month after they first queued to vote in India’s mammoth general election, the country’s voters will learn the outcome on May 16. The election, staggered over five phases – involving five polling days over four weeks, rather than one “election day” – will determine who rules the world’s largest democracy. Only one thing is certain: no single party will win a majority on its own. India is set for more coalition rule.

That may not be a bad thing. India’s last two governments each served a full term and presided over significant economic growth, even though they comprised 23 and 20 parties, respectively. Coalition politics gives representation to the myriad interests that make up a diverse and complex society, and ensures that the country as a whole accepts the policies ultimately adopted.

But coalition rule can also often mean governance of the lowest common denominator, as resistance by any of the government’s significant members to a policy can delay or even thwart it. In India’s parliamentary system, if a coalition loses its majority, the government falls, and keeping allies together can sometimes prove a greater priority than getting things done.

India’s national elections are really an aggregate of thirty different state elections, each influenced by its own local considerations, regional political currents, and different patterns of political incumbency. Soon after May 16, the largest single party that emerges will seek to construct a coalition out of a diverse array of victors from the various states.