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As South Asia emerges as a major arena for international investment following the liberalization of regional economies, concerns about the political future of the region tend to mount in the United States and in the rest of the developed world. In much of the developing world, which includes South Asia, politics tends to shape the economic environment to a much greater extent than it does in the industrialized part of the globe. Political stability, regime legitimacy, and prospects for internal strife are, therefore, crucial concerns for outsiders interested in the economic health of developing regions and countries.
The political future of South Asia will depend on the political trajectory adopted by India, the country pivotal to the region in demographic, territorial, and economic terms, and one that has traditionally played a leading role in developing world forums like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. In turn, the political future of India will depend on the choices that Indians make on a number of issues not only critical to the future of the Indian polity but also intertwined with, and likely to have major bearing on, key issues of international order in the post-cold war era.
Three of these issues stand out from among the rest:
* the nature of power-sharing between sovereign states and their constituent units - the latter defined in ethnic or regional terms or, as in India, both;
* the interconnected, but analytically distinct, issue of determining the fundamental principles on which national identities are to be based and according to which citizenship criteria are to be formulated in post-colonial states, including the successor states to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and
* how to manage the problem of rapid political mobilization of the hitherto politically unempowered and traditionally underrepresented sections of society - a question that has emerged with the rise of political consciousness and the spread of democratization in much of the developing world.
Anyone familiar with the history of recent conflicts in the international system - ranging from Lebanon to the former Yugoslavia - will realize that these three issues are at the core of much of the strife and instability that one sees around the world today. The international community, both through the United Nations (UN) and outside it, has during the last few years spent a great deal of time, energy, and money in attempting to manage conflicts that have been the products primarily of clashing convictions concerning the crucial issues outlined above. India, which encompasses more diversity within it than any other country, has been vulnerable to such conflicts, some of which have surfaced violently, such as in Punjab and Kashmir. But India has fortunately been able to avert any major conflagration largely because its political system allows the periodic venting of political steam, thus decreasing pressure around the core issues before it reaches explosive proportions.
The May 1996 parliamentary election, which saw a respectable voter turnout of 57 percent, could be seen as another exercise in releasing political pressures that had built up over the last five years, or even in providing a peaceful and legitimate avenue for regime change, but in fact it was much more than that. The electoral exercise of 1996 and the debates that preceded, accompanied, and followed it constitute a political milestone. The election has clarified several fundamental issues relating to the future course of the Indian polity, including the three major issues described above: center-state relations, the definition of national identity, and the rapid entry into the political arena of hitherto politically peripheral segments of society. Although none of these issues has been resolved, the debates about them have been brought to the center of the political stage and, in the case of defining India's national identity, the question has taken on the character of a battle between those who advocate an exclusivist delineation and those who support a pluralist definition of this identity.
In addition, the recent election has heralded the forceful entry into the political arena of castes and classes that had hitherto been under-represented on the national scene. Approximately half the members of the new Lok Sabha (the House of the People, or lower house of parliament) are drawn from the Backward Castes and Dalits (literally "the oppressed," the former untouchables of Hindu society referred to as "Scheduled Castes" in quaint Indian officialese).(1) More important, many of them were elected explicitly because of their affiliation with parties that avowedly represent the interests of the Backward Castes and Dalits. This self-conscious emergence of the Backward Castes and Dalits as major political forces in their own right has both strongly influenced and become significantly intertwined with the two other issues - Indian federalism and the definition of India's national identity. Moreover, such mobilization has both positive and negative effects on the polity - positive because it has broadened the base of the political system, but negative because of the limited capacity of the Indian state to meet societal demands of the newly mobilized segments of the population.(2)
One point needs clarification before we examine in detail the interrelationship among the three major issues outlined above: The most important immediate outcome of the election - the coming to power of a fairly broad-based coalition under the banner of the United Front - was the result of the Indian electorate's fragmented verdict, a verdict that was more fractured this time than in any of the preceding elections.(3) For proof of this fracturing of political opinion, one need only note that the Congress Party - the traditional party of power - for the first time attracted less than 30 percent of the votes in an election to the Lok Sabha.(4) While cutting Congress down to size in 1996, however, the electorate did not give a clear verdict. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) polled less than 21 percent of the votes, not even a 1 percent increase over its 1991 performance, but its seat tally went up from 120 to 161. The BJP therefore …