Peaceful and historic elections in Myanmar

In what has been described as ‘peaceful and historic’ the general elections held in Myanmar on Sunday 8 November were the first such an exercise at national level in twenty-five years. Earlier known as Burma, the country has been ruled by the military since 1990. After 15 years of house arrest for defying the nation’s military rulers and following growing international pressure, the most prominent icon of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, was eventually released in 2010. Although she was herself the daughter of a military general, she relentlessly pursued an agenda for restoring democratic rule in Myanmar after the nearly six decades of rule by the military.

This now practically a reality: as of Wednesday last, that is three days after the elections, her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won in the declared seats by wide margins against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Suu Kyi had earlier urged caution, saying it was too early to celebrate, although she was hopeful, as did a majority of her compatriots, that her party the NLD would win the required number of seats to form the government.

In fact, she has to win at least 67% of the 491 seats, that is 329, being contested in the Upper and Lower Houses of Myanmar’s Parliament, as 25% of the seats are reserved for the army. As of Wednesday, the NLD had already bagged 90% of the declared seats, so definitely it will be forming the next government. However, it will still have to negotiate with the army regarding the new power structure and power-sharing arrangements that will have to be put in place. A notable fact is that regardless of the voter outcome, Suu Kyi is barred from becoming the country’s President, but she had said that if her party does win, she will occupy a position ‘above the President’ – a role that has yet to be defined.

Perhaps the most significant aspects of these elections are that they have been completely peaceful despite taking place under military rule, that the military allowed them to take place freely, and that the military had stated that it will accept the electorate’s verdict. And now the parties have to work out the smooth transition to civilian rule in line with the will of the people.

In fact, a step in this direction has already been made: according to the National League for Democracy Facebook page, after her win Suu Kyi has written to the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, president Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann requesting a meeting to discuss the election and ‘national reconciliation’.

A significant fact is that the NLD has made gains across diverse areas of the country, implying that many from Myanmar’s 40% ethnic minority populations have voted for the NLD, and minorities will therefore be represented in the Parliament. There had been speculation earlier that they would vote for smaller parties, thus hampering the NLD’s chances of a majority.

All in all, therefore, the people of Myanmar have not only sent a clear signal that they don’t want to ruled by the military, but they have expressed their will in a most definitive manner by giving an overwhelming majority to the NLD, which is in fact a resounding victory for Aung San Suu Kyi. She deserves it and this mandate fully, and the Burmese people have long deserved to have someone of her calibre and charisma to lead them.

In Bihar too…

The State elections that have been held over nearly three weeks have been on the whole peaceful, without any incident of political violence which has unfortunately marked some other State elections in India in the recent past. The Grand Alliance or Maha Gatbandhan formed by the coming together of the Congress Party, the JDU of Nitish Kumar and the RJD of Lalu Prasad Yadav have won a massive victory against the BJP, securing 178 seats out of 243, compared to BJP’s 58.

As soon as it was clear by Sunday evening that the Opposition alliance was going to sweep the polls, the BJP in the sound democratic – if at times chaotic! — spirit of India conceded defeat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Nitish Kumar – whose JDU had earlier formed the government with BJP before they broke up – and congratulated him, accepting the verdict of the people.

Let’s hope that astute, mature and responsible leaders as they are, they put down their pre-electoral cross-firing to the exigencies of the populist political rhetoric that all campaigns thrive on, without any actual intention to hurt each other or derail the larger agenda of bringing prosperity to the people of Bihar. After all, they have worked together for several years, and are wise enough to know that there is such a thing as political rivalry and shifting political winds, and that they have to rise above these to pursue the development agenda for both the State of Bihar and for their Motherland Bharat.

For, as one analyst noted, while Modi as Prime Minister has focused, since he took over in 2014, on the macro-developmental aspects what with his upping of the India image abroad and marketing the country as an investment destination to several developed countries, as well as consolidating relations with regional countries, Nitish Kumar has concentrated on micro-development, working from the bottom up at grassroots level, much as Modi did during his tenure of three mandates as Chief Minister in his native Gujarat. But a country needs both types of development.

Analyses of the possible causes of the BJP defeat began immediately as it became apparent that it was set to lose, and the exercise is no doubt going to continue so as to learn the lessons and work out the alternative strategy in preparation for other State elections due next year.

The two sanest voices have been those of PC Chidambaram, ex-Finance Minister during Congress rule, and Arun Jaitley, the current Finance Minister in the Modi government. The principal reason for the outcome of this election in favour of the Opposition is electoral arithmetic: the three opposition parties joined up to become the single contender against the BJP.

There was not much of a change in the percentage of votes earned by the parties individually, but the fact that they formed an Alliance before the elections ensured that the arithmetic tally played in their favour in the final outcome, winning them more seats – and this is a feature of the First Past The Post system which all parties have benefited from at one time or another.

As the BJP goes deeper in its post-mortem, it will be worth remembering that there is nothing permanent in politics, and no two elections are the same. But there are also some core elements that determine the outcome of a State election that PC Chidambaram highlighted, and that the BJP leadership may have neglected at its own peril: the local context, the importance of key regional players, and the core social support base of the leaders. These together make up the ‘chemistry’ that complements that arithmetic of the process, and on reflection they definitely played a significant role.

The same Chidambaram has said that the result is more of a rebuke of Modi than a tidal wave against him.

On the other hand, Arun Jaitley was confident as he affirmed that the government has been honest, decisive, and had maintained a clear sense of direction and been consistent in its focus of bringing about the structural changes and reforms that the country needed.

He added that the government was aware of the political difficulties and constraints that it was faced with, and that it would continue to seek engagement with the Opposition on issues that had to be resolved through the legislative process. And that included Nitish Kumar for, as he stated, it is the State of Bihar that is going to be a major beneficiary of the proposed GST (General and Services Tax) Bill that has been pending, which Nitish Kumar had supported in the past. He sees no reason that the latter would alter his position, as even more so now as a responsible leader he will need funds and resources to implement his development agenda. And he was categorical in stating that ‘if Bihar grows, India grows.’

This one assertion on his part puts a whole new colouring on the State of Bihar, which in general in India has always been perceived very negatively, especially during the ‘Lalu Raj’ years, despite his apparent success when he was Railways Minister. Bihar was invariably associated with dacoity, poverty, backwardness. Indians looked down upon one of their most historically important States, and so were Biharis too outside their State. They may have had themselves to blame for much of this, but if the opinion of some analysts – namely that these results indicate that the Biharis have gone beyond caste in these elections – is correct, then perhaps Bihar and Biharis are set to aspire to fame and to be rid of the tag of notoriety which they have so long been thrust with.

Bihar beckons, and Arun Jaitley said that the central government will fully support Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Bihar. The next polls will show. But further and importantly, the strongest message post the Bihar elections is that for every State election the strategy has to be customised by factoring in the ground realities of the State, and showcasing upfront local leaders as trusted/trustworthy allies in addition to having Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah, president of the BJP and lead campaign manager, driving home key national development messages in a few critical, selected rallies.

Indeed, a foursome ‘old guard’ within the BJP led by veteran LK Advani has come out openly with a declaration that blames the defeat on the overexposure of PM Modi during the campaign. It follows that in doing so he put at stake his credibility and therefore it is being advanced that the responsibility for the defeat must rest squarely on him – and Amit Shah. The discarding of the ‘consensual’ functioning of the party in favour of what is perceived as a personality cult has apparently been rattling many of its members who are, however, reluctant to express themselves openly, and the views of the foursome are a reflection of this seemingly widespread feeling.

At this stage what is clear is that there is no other option for the BJP but to listen to all discordant voices within, do the course correction required based on these inputs and then march ahead with confidence and optimism. It may well be that the Bihar result is a fortunate wake-up call for the BJP sooner rather than later in the government’s mandate, and it must be taken in that spirit if the development agenda is to continue.



  • Published in print edition on 13 November 2015

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