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A head start for India's next prime minister

May 13, 2009 16:46 IST

Visitors to India are dazzled by the chaos and unpredictability of life here, but those who observe its politics are bewildered by the opposite. Crises are visible from a distance and grow to size in full public view, yet still seem to catch the government by absolute surprise.

We have to wait until May 16 -- or perhaps even longer -- to know whether India's next prime minister will be the incumbent, Manhmohan Singh, or his Hindu nationalist rival, L K Advani, or someone from a smaller party. But this much is already clear: the new prime minister will almost certainly have to deal with four emergencies in the course of his term.

Emergency One: Terrorism is a part of daily life in India now, but at some point during the new prime minister's term there will be a spectacular strike -- on a plane, temple, Parliament or nuclear installation. When the strike takes place, it will be found that the local police did not have enough guns, walkie-talkies, training or manpower to fight back quickly. Co-ordination between local security agencies and elite commando forces in Delhi will prove to be poor. When the terrorists are overpowered, they will probably say that they received training and assistance from jihadists in Pakistan; they may even be Pakistani nationals.

The government will immediately threaten to attack Pakistan, then realise that it cannot do so without risking nuclear war, and finally beg the US to do something. Once it is clear that the government has failed on every front -- military, tactical and diplomatic --against the terrorists, senior ministers will appear on television and promise that, next time, they will be prepared. They should start preparing right now.

Two: The extent to which the global recession has hurt India's economy has been masked by a government stimulus package. This spending has come at a cost -- India's fiscal deficit has shot up -- and cannot be sustained after the elections, yet few observers within the country seem worried. There are signs of a nascent recovery and Singh recently sounded almost gung-ho when he said that his government could improve the economy in just 100 days of a new term.

International analysts worry about India's fiscal health and are much less sanguine about the country's prospects in the near future. Many young urban Indians have known nothing but a booming economy; the prospect of long-term unemployment could confuse and inflame them. Perhaps the economy will indeed return to robust growth. But the wise thing would be to prepare for a painful slowdown.

Three: In the past few weeks, the Naxals -- Maoist guerrillas who operate in the desperately poor states of north and central India -- have attacked a major aluminium mine, killed voters and policemen, and disrupted trains. The Naxal insurgency, which taps into the resentment of those left out or threatened by the economic boom, has grown steadily in the past five years. Yet most urban Indians still think of it as an obscure menace that is "out there" -- far from the cities and towns.

This is likely to change. The emboldened guerillas look set to escalate their war against the Indian state in the months ahead. Attacks on industries, mines, police stations and trains are likely to rise; a spectacular strike that grabs national and international attention is on the cards. Understaffed local police and corrupt regional politicians will not be able to deal with the Naxals without significantly greater assistance from New Delhi.

Four: India's population continues to grow and demand for water -- for irrigation, industrial and personal consumption -- keeps mounting; yet no government has given enough thought to husbanding the country's water resources. Tensions over the use of water simmer across India. Sooner or later, they will explode. In the months after a bad monsoon, for example, there could be a flare-up between neighbouring regions over the use of a shared river; this could lead to strikes and protests that paralyse parts of the country.

There are, of course, many other emergencies that will confront the new prime minister -- such as the children who die every day of malnutrition and the relentless spread of corruption -- but these are not going to make the evening news, unless Danny Boyle is preparing a sequel to Slumdog Millionaire. But the four crises outlined here are likely to cause the next prime minister a few sleepless nights. He could make things easier on himself by planning for them right now.

The writer's novel, The White Tiger, won last year's Man Booker Prize. His new book, Between the Assassinations, is published by Atlantic Books in July

Aravind Adiga
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