Insights about the 1999 Indian elections

Sandeep Krishnamurthy


I visited India in September of this year.  At this time, elections that would determine the next leader of the nation were in progress.  A failed vote of confidence had brought the Hindu nationalist led coalition crashing necessitating the elections. 


The milieu in which this election was being conducted was dramatically different from the previous one.  The recent nuclear tests of India and Pakistan and the skirmishes between the two at Kargil had dramatically escalated tensions.  Given the relatively short life of recent governments, the country was beginning to crave stability. 


Elections in the world’s largest democracy are grand, expensive events that move at a leisurely pace- for example, voting took place over a one-month period.  Mobilizing an electorate of over billion people is no easy task.  My first-hand observation of this event from close quarters led me to a few observations, which are summarized below.  I am sure you have seen some of this reported and discussed in the western media.  However, I hope you find my view from close quarters interesting.


Xenophobia vs. dynastic rule


Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, is now the leader of the Congress party.  She had not participated in politics previously.  However, the party decided that her “brand name” and links to the Nehru dynasty would automatically mean that she would attract a large number of votes.  It turned out that she was a bad public speaker and a poor campaigner.  She frequently read from index cards in public and showed her nervousness by running from two constituencies.  She identified the state of one of her constituencies incorrectly on a TV interview leading to even more criticism.


To add to this, the Hindu nationalists launched a campaign attacking her foreign origin.  This campaign questioned her understanding of and interest in Indian issues as a foreigner.  It asked why she had waited for a long time to obtain her Indian citizenship alluding at her opportunism.  A particularly outspoken member compared her to Monica Lewinsky.  I am yet to figure out why.


The campaign worked.  Even though Sonia won her two constituencies, she was not able to galvanize the nation into voting for her party.  However, this is not an indicator of the decline of “the dynasty” in Indian politics.  Some politicians are already considering Priyanka, the daughter of Rajiv and Sonia, as a future leader.


Election Commission’s Decisions


The Election Commission in India has adopted an activist stance in recent years.  This trend has continued this year.


In this election, one of their decisions was to ban reporting the results of opinion polls when the election was in progress.  Their rationale was that releasing the results of opinion polls would influence the electorate and could bias them.  They questioned the basis for conducting some of these polls and questioned the legitimacy of the statistical process behind it.  However, the Supreme Court who deemed that this was outside the commission’s jurisdiction upheld a legal challenge to this ruling. 

Overall, it was strange to go through an election reading or hearing about the process without knowing who was in the lead.


More interestingly, the commission placed a ban on the parties advertising in electronic media, i.e., radio and TV.  The rationale here was that since it is expensive to purchase ad space on these media, only big parties could afford it.  While this may be true, it did limit the discourse on major issues.  The Internet was not a big factor in the election given the poor access rates among households.


Electronic Voting Machines


Finally, the country went high-tech by choosing to introduce electronic voting machines in some districts.  By all accounts this was successful- even though they intimidated some of the voters and power failures limited their efficacy in some areas.


Poll violence


The papers regularly reported violence in connection with the polls.  Some candidates were murdered.  There were reports of entire low-caste communities being prevented from voting using violent means.  Allegations of manipulating the election process through booth capturing and offering illegal incentives to voters (e.g. cheap liquor) abounded.


In conclusion, an election in India is a fascinating event.  Even though it is immense in scale and complexity and fraught with problems, it is great to see the largest democracy at work.