Despite predictions of a close race forcing an unstable coalition government, India's Congress Party on Saturday claimed a major victory in national elections, leaving it with enough parliamentary seats to form a government with only minimal support from other parties. Congress is expected to win 205 out of 543 seats, according to India's Election Commission, garnering 124 million votes. So how does Prime Minister Manmohan Singh plan to use the electorate's strong mandate for his second term in office? Singh, an economist and architect of the country's 1991 economic reforms, is well-regarded at home and abroad, but not a man given to grand gestures. The margin of his victory, though, will allow him to change that. Here are five ways he can make a dramatic difference to India over the next five years:
1. Make Good on His Promises to the Rural Poor
The Congress Party got a lot of campaign mileage out of its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a jobs scheme for the rural poor that guarantees 100 days work a year, at a minimum wage of up to Rs. 141 ($2.80) a day. But NREGA, along with a Rs. 700 million loan waiver program for poor farmers, have been widely faulted for failing to actually deliver those funds to the people entitled to them. During the elections, Congress blamed state and local governments for these failures, but it's time for a better answer. If Singh is serious about helping India's villages, he will own up to NREGA's failures and clean up the whole system. To continue growing its economy at 5% or 6% in a global recession, India needs consumers with rising incomes in rural areas to buy Indian goods and services. "That's where the people are," says Prashant Deshmukh, who runs an independent polling firm, TeamCVoter, in New Delhi. (See pictures of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi on the campaign trail in 2004)
2. Make Cities Livable
Urban voters were a key voting bloc in this election, with Congress gaining more seats than expected in the big cities, including a near-complete sweep of the two biggest cities, New Delhi and Mumbai. What do urbanites want? Better security against terrorist attacks; roads, schools and emergency services that work; and more efficient local government. To do any of those things, Singh will have to take on one of the sacred cows of Indian politics: a bloated bureaucracy filled with tenured government employees jealously guarding their positions. "One important area that [Congress has] neglected so far is administrative reform," says Manoj Joshi, senior editor with Mail Today, a daily newspaper in New Delhi. "Now that the UPA [the Congress-led alliance] is back, they should reform the archaic bureaucracy that has failed to deliver the goods."
3. Open a Dialogue on Kashmir
It has become conventional wisdom in the West that Pakistan will only curb its Taliban challenge when it shifts its security focus away from confronting India. New Delhi can help achieve such a shift through a willingness to negotiate over the status of the disputed territory of Kashmir part of which is controlled by India, the other party by Pakitan. To open up a dialogue, Singh will have to resist pressure from within his own party, and Pakistan's internal conflicts may prevent it from seriously engaging on Kashmir right now. If Singh can help resolve this decades-long conflict between the two countries, says Deshmukh, "he will secure his place in history."
4. Take the Long View on Climate Change
India has long resisted accepting international targets for curbing greenhouse gases, partly out of national pique: Why should India, whose citizens use so few resources compared to those in the gas-guzzling West, shoulder the burden for a mess made by the industrialized world? That attitude is changing at the grass roots level, however, particularly among young people; farmers, too, have become more aware of climate change as they suffer worsening droughts and seasonal floods. A progressive stand on climate change now could benefit the Congress Party, not to mention the planet, in the future.
5. Take the Lead on Sri Lanka
As South Asia's regional superpower, India is one of the only countries with political leverage over Sri Lanka it is a major trading partner, and has a long history of involvement with the Tamil question in Sri Lanka, including, at one point, sending in peacekeeping troops. Any post-conflict political solution will need some involvement from India. But while the U.S. and Britain have condemned the humanitarian catastrophe unleashed by the Sri Lankan Army's final push against the Tamil Tiger separatists, and warned that Sri Lanka's leaders will be held accountable for the fate of thousands of civilians are trapped by the fighting, India has remained largely silent. The Sri Lankan issue turned out to be irrelevant to India's election the Tamil regional parties that played up the plight of their Sri Lankan kin fared poorly in the polls. So, this will be a test for Singh the statesman, not Singh the politician. The world will be watching to see whether he knows the difference.
With reporting by Madhur Singh/New Delhi