Is Varun Gandhi better than Rahul Gandhi

The senior duel

India will elect a new parliament for a month - and the outcome has never been so open. The party landscape is fragmented, and with it the unity of the country.

Christine Möllhoff, Delhi

Ten years ago, many Kumari Mayawati only smiled gently. Behind her back, Delhi's snobbish political class mocked her flesh-colored socks, impossible handbags, and poor English. But today the big parties fear no one more than the dazzling "Queen of the Dalits", as the untouchables in India are called today. With her caste party BSP she won an absolute majority in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh in 2007 and almost wiped out the old Gandhi congress party. And now she wants to try her luck in Delhi too.

Open election result

After five years India will elect a new parliament and thus a new government. And the outcome has never been so open as this time. The world's largest exercise in democracy lasts almost a whole month, from April 16 to May 13.

In the subcontinent with its 1.1 billion inhabitants, elections are still decided in the countryside, where two thirds of the people live. The election campaigners trundle through 543 constituencies. In helicopters they float like living gods into the villages of the forgotten and promise the blue from the sky: rice, school bags, color TV.

There are also cash on hand. Helping the poor has a "rich" tradition in his family, defended a politician recently who was caught red-handed buying votes. In India's democracy, not everything is right. A seat in parliament is considered a license to print money. And so the election campaigners dig deep into their pockets.

"The people who spend massive amounts of money expect that they will get it back tenfold," says Anil Bairwal of the independent initiative Association for Democratic Reforms.

Listless big parties

But the two largest parties, the Congress and the Hindu party BJP, do not seem in the right mood to fight. Both have had such a listless election campaign so far that commentators are already scoffing that they are trying desperately not to win.

There could be something to it. The crisis should not really hit India until after the elections. The growth forecasts are being revised downwards more and more. And both parties do not want to waste their hopes.

The Congress Party is currently building the 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi, known in India as the “Crown Prince”, to be the heir of the political dynasty. And in the BJP, 58-year-old Narendra Modi is waiting for his hour. He is considered the most talented politician in India - and the most dangerous. He is charged with the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.

Both parties are now going into battle with yesterday's guards. The Congress Party is once again sending 76-year-old Manmohan Singh into the race, who is honorable and respected, but not very charismatic. The BJP trumps in the senior duel with Lal Krishna Advani, who is five years older than him, who was once notorious for his agitation against Muslims, but is now mostly milder with age. Many believe that there will be early elections in two or three years' time, while the current one is just the prelude to the real battle between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

That is precisely why powerful regional princes like Mayawati now sense their chances. Many experts expect a “huge surprise”. Even the countless astrologers of India, who otherwise know everything and anything better, hold back, confused.

The world used to be fine. For decades, India's democracy was almost a one-party event. The Gandhis ruled the gigantic country like uncrowned kings, and their name alone was enough to win big majorities for the Congress Party. But that changed in the 1990s when a second large party, the Hindu party BJP, gained strength.

Party inflation

But India’s democracy is actually struggling with much deeper upheavals. The party landscape is in a state of upheaval that is tectonically shifting the power structure. In the 2004 elections, the Congress party just got 26 percent, the BJP 22.

The real winners are Mayawati, Jayalalitha or Laloo Prasad. They lead regional and caste parties that are springing up like mushrooms. In 1951 India had 72 parties, compared to 230 in the 2004 elections, and the number is growing.

Some are no more than one-man chapels. But because India took over majority voting from the British colonial rulers, soloists sometimes manage to get a seat in parliament.

Not content, but alliances are more and more decisive for victory or defeat. India’s politics are haywire. The best thing to do is to get together in groups. There is the UPA bloc around the Gandhi party, the NDA bloc around the BJP and a left-wing front that is so loose that you don't know whether it really exists.

The alliance partners are changed so quickly that you can hardly keep track of things. Topics, on the other hand, play a minor role. But there would be enough explosive: terrorism, economic crisis, poverty. "Are topics irrelevant?" Ask the TV channels, irritated. But the people in the country are more interested in their everyday worries.

"Politics of Hate"

The party landscape is fragmented, and with it the unity of the country. The media speak of a "policy of hatred" poisoning the country. In order to score points with their clientele, parties are increasingly raising the mood against the others - against members of other religions, regions and castes. Instead of uniting the deeply heterogeneous country, they are deepening the rifts.

Ironically, a failed great-grandson of state founder Jawaharlal Nehru now undercut all hateful tirades on the racism scale, which is open to the bottom: During an election, Varun Gandhi publicly raved about slitting Muslims' throats and chopping off their hands.

His mum Maneka had been kicked out of the family clan decades ago after an argument with Varun's grandmother Indira Gandhi. She and later her son retaliated and defected to the Hindu party BJP, which is only too happy to adorn itself with the name Gandhi.

The Mayawati phenomenon

Mayawati made short work of the unfortunate Gandhi offspring. She promoted Varun behind bars after a provocative performance in Uttar Pradesh. Not without calculation, of course: She wants to collect points from the Muslims. As the first untouchables in the history of India, she was given - albeit tiny - chances of conquering power in Delhi.

In any case, Mayawati is a phenomenon. Like no one else, she personifies the meteoric rise of the regional princes. It attacks the Congress Party in its home districts and vies for the same voters: Dalits, the poor, Muslims and left-wing Brahmins.

Egomaniac personality cult

The 53-year-old is hardly suitable for a political Cinderella story: The lady has it all behind her ears and is considered one of the most corrupt figures in the country. In a short time she has amassed such fortunes that she allegedly pays more income tax than multibillionaire Anil Ambani or any other politician in this gigantic country.

She has stuffed Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, with her own statues. She does not contest criticism of her egomaniac personality cult. If she was dead, she would have nothing of her monuments, she parried dryly.

Forecasts hardly possible

All votes should be counted on May 16. In the betting offices, the Congress Party currently has a slight lead, but ultimately all forecasts remain coffee grounds reading. Only after the elections will the countless regional and caste parties come together to form coalitions and play kingmakers.

In its government from 1999 to 2004, the BJP struggled with 23 coalition partners. And the last ruling Congress party, even with 13 partners, could not achieve a majority of its own and had to ask the stubborn communists to support the government from outside.

The growing number of parties makes it more and more difficult to organize stable majorities and to govern the country. "Governments are increasingly being held hostage by regional and small parties," complain the media.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist, also had to experience this. In the past five years he has had to sacrifice almost all major reforms in order to maintain the coalition. The government was only able to get the civil nuclear deal with the USA through parliament because it was bribed like crazy.

Will be unable to act soon?

The fragile coalition could only easily come to an agreement on spending money. In recent years, Delhi has freely spent the money on questionable election gifts. The emerging economic nation is now presented with the invoice. Although the economy has been booming for years and has grown by nine percent, the state is now in the crisis with empty hands. The financial deficit is 11 percent.

The fear is not unfounded that India's mega-democracy will one day paralyze itself and bring politics to the brink of inability to act.

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