The voters despair of lies and sleaze

Indians have never had such choice. The hundreds of millions of electors can pick from an array of politicians whose appeal may be rooted in caste, communism, nationalism, language, occupation or region. Two hundred and thirty parties contested the most recent national elections. This is new for a country which, from 1947 to 1989, was ruled almost continuously by the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress party. In the 1990s a series of silent social revolutions lifted downtrodden groups into power, overturning the established order.

It has become common wisdom that the 2004 elections were a vote for Congress and against the Bharatiya Janata Party, but in truth neither did particularly well. The final seat tally was Congress 145, BJP 138, but there were 260 others and they are the real power in the land, ensuring that coalition politics is a fact of Indian life.

Small players wield disproportionate power. With 60 seats, the communists, who support the ruling Congress-led coalition from outside the government, have a virtual veto over economic policy. Meanwhile the country's minister of communications and IT, from a Tamil Dravidian party that is Congress's biggest partner, regulates an industry in which his family has a large business empire.

The bargaining and conflict resolution behind such arrangements have given rise to a class of political fixers who are themselves growing rich on the poverty of Indian political ambition. One noted middleman is known to have 36 flat-screen televisions in his whitewashed Delhi bungalow.

Politics, in short, has become a scramble for money, power and influence. The cost of elections has risen inexorably - which means that successful candidates often have to recoup their expenses through corruption once they are in power. More disturbing still is the criminalisation of politics. Many parties now have links with gangsters, some of whom have strong-armed their way into the legislatures. In some states the distinction between lawmakers and lawbreakers has almost disappeared.

But it is not all bad news. India's free press has recently unearthed an embarrassing number of scandals, most notably catching MPs taking cash for parliamentary questions. And the political class is also beginning to recognise that the power of money needs to be curbed. One BJP leader, L K Advani, recently held up as an example the progress Britain has made since the age when its parliamentary seats were bought and sold in the 19th century.

Most heartening is that the electorate is increasingly aware of how little the political class has done for the people. Poverty alleviation and its essential precursor, sustainable growth, are promised in every party's manifesto, but such pledges are routinely worthless the day after the votes are counted. Voters are not stupid, and in the boondocks of Bihar, a fly-blown northern state with 83 million souls, the people recently issued a warning by throwing out a populist leader who had misruled for 15 years.

Faced with this volatility, the big parties are retreating into core messages: Congress relying on the Gandhi dynasty to pull in votes and the BJP emphasising hardline Hindu nationalism. With the electorate becoming younger and more urban, however, this may be a mistake: whatever India's future may be, it is unlikely to look to past certainties.

The author is South Asia correspondent, the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, A new sort of superpower