On a late April afternoon in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, I met a rickshaw puller, a man who made $3 a day pedaling passengers through aggressive traffic and temperatures as high as 120 F. He was among the hundreds of millions of Indian poor and also on the lowest rung of the ancient Hindu caste system: a Dalit or former Untouchable. We watched the traffic pass by a massive statues — one of the many — of BR Ambedkar, the Dalit lawyer and economist who chaired the committee that drafted the Indian constitution and was instrumental in initiating a program of affirmative action for India’s socially and economically deprived lower castes.
In the last 20 years, India’s lower castes — numbering 191 million — were staking claim on their share of power and the current head of the Uttar Pradesh government, a Dalit woman, Kumari Mayawati was staking an aggressive claim to be the Prime Minister of India. To give Dalits a grand sense of their history, Maywati had been building a series of enormous statues of the leaders of the Dalit pantheon, including one of Ambedkar designed after the Abraham Lincoln sitting in an armchair in Washington DC.
The mood in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in India suggested a weak coalition government of many partners might form the government. Various plausible combinations gave Mayawati a major role in the next Indian government, if not the seat of the Prime Minister. “It would have been better if Maywati would have built factories instead of statues,” the Dalit rickshaw puller said.
His words, placing economic growth and development over caste and religious politics turned out to be indicative of a larger trend. Surprising everyone, the Indian electorate voted for the incumbent Manmohan Singh-led Congress, reversing decades of decline facing the party that once led India to freedom. Congress won 206 out of the 545 seats, placing it in a strong position to dictate the policy agenda in the government it forms with its allies to reach the required parliamentary strength of 272.
There had been concern about the policy decisions India would make if a wobbly coalition government came to power. In his last term, Singh had to face intense hostility and negotiate at every step with the India’s Left parties, whose 60 seats were crucial to keep his government from falling, especially over pushing through the India-US nuclear deal and a slew of economic reforms. The Communists finally left the coalition when Singh pushed the nuclear deal through, and he had to save his government by gathering support form various regional parties.
Now a comfortable Congress plurality in the Indian parliament has raised expectations that Singh will be in a far stronger position to take effective policy decisions. As a mark of confidence in Singh, the Bombay Stock Exchange has risen by over 17% and the Indian rupee has risen in value against the dollar. What has worked for Singh, along with his reputation as a pro-reform economist, is the fact that his government waived the debts of thousands of farmers after thousands had committed suicide on failing to pay their debts. He also launched a populist scheme of ensuring employment to India’s rural poor through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which the government claims has benefitted more than 40 million families. In contrast to Singh’s pet pro-poor projects, his detractors in the Left parties had gone to the electorate making opposition to the India-US nuclear deal their electoral plank. But few talked about the nuclear deal as India went to the polls, and the Left parties came crashing down from 60 to 24 seats.
Singh is now expected to push through pending reforms as well as have the political strength to renew the peace talks with Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute, which have been suspended since the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Although India has recently talked about an increase in militant infiltration and skirmishes along the Line of Control in Kashmir, it is very likely that one of Singh’s major decisions in the coming months would be to resume dialogue with Pakistan. The back channel talks on Kashmir that had made significant progress under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf are expected to be energized. “We are committed to taking forward the dialogue with Pakistan,” a senior Indian government official who has been part of the negotiations told me. “We have already agreed on many things.” It is believed that Kashmiris would be given right to move and trade freely on both sides of the LoC and each of the provinces of Kashmir region would be largely autonomous and the both India and Pakistan would gradually withdraw their troops as the violence declined. “We had come so close that we were debating the terminology that should be used to oversee such arrangements,” he added.
Partly due to Pakistan’s preoccupation with the fight against the Taliban and partly owing to the opposition of Indian security hawks to a dialogue with Pakistan till various demands of the Indian government regarding the Mumbai terror attacks are met, the dialogue might take some time to resume. But there is a chance that Singh would move toward addressing various internal dimensions of the Kashmir problem. Civil rights groups, non-violent separatist parties and pro-India political parties have consistently called for demilitarization or the removal of India’s military and paramilitary camps from residential areas.
The disproportionately high military presence is seen as a source of harassment to civilians. An equally crucial demand is the revocation of the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – laws that give half a million Indian troops stationed in Kashmir the power to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat, and guarantee impunity from prosecution. One of the factors that might encourage Singh to move on this is that a working group he himself established in May 2006 and which was headed by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, a senior diplomat and now India’s vice-president, has already recommended scrapping these highly unpopular laws, which “impinge on fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public. They should be reviewed and revoked.”
Along with Kashmir, the question of Tamils in Sri Lanka is likely to be high on the agenda, especially as the Sri Lankan government’s recent military campaign—tainted by a high cost to civilian lives—has led to the defeat of the LTTE and the killing of its chief V Prabhakaran, who had ordered the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. In a meeting of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance yesterday, just two days before it forms the 15th Indian government, one of the major allies, the Tamil party, Dravida Munetra Kazgham lobbied aggressively to make the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils a priority. India had already sent high profile envoys to Lanka and given an aid package of around $ 50 million to help the millions of Tamils displaced due to the war. Singh is expected to announce another relief package soon after being sworn as Prime Minister and launch a diplomatic initiative to create a political space for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, now that Prabhakaran and the LTTE, which the Congress party much despised, are out of the way.
The soft spoken Singh has shown that he can assert himself when he needs to. With a strong mandate this time around, his chances of getting things done are better than ever.
Basharat Peer is the author of a new book on Kashmir called Curfewed Nights. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for leading Indian, UK, and US newspapers.