Unlike the earlier psephological predictions announcing an outright victory for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, based ostensibly on the overwhelming popularity of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the euphoria of victory over Kargil, our pollsters are now busy hedging their bets.

Equally, the BJP strategy of brokering a successful marriage' between †̃a national party which appreciated regional aspirations' and 'regional formations with a national outlook' has been unable to overcome the odium attached to its poor record of governance in the regions where it has exercised state power, notably UP.

As for the Congress, having successfully overcome the handicap of a videshi imported leader, though more by invocation to an anti-diluvian notion of the bahu inheriting the ascriptive mantle of her marital family than any appeal to our Republican Constitution, the party has clawed back into the fray. 

While few take seriously its episodic assertions about a clear majority, that it will turn in a vastly improved performance vis-a-vis vote share, if not to the same degree in seats, is no longer dismissed as a bizarre proposition. This when less than a couple of years back most pundits had written the epitaph to the Congress party.

The fate of the Third or is it the Fourth Front, a motely grouping of parties claiming equidistance from both the BJP and the Congress, except on the issue of secularism, tco, seems dismal. In any case, at least for the present, whatever their electoral hold in the regions of their strength, 

their significance derives more from their ability to upset the parliamentary arithmetic than successfully put across a vision of a federal and participative polity. Put sharply. they seem destined for a proximate future of tailism than autonomous politics.

Overall then, the 1999 elections are once again likely to return a fractured verdict akin to the situation we have lived with since 1996. True, the internal composition of the big picture will be different given the gains and losses of different parties, but stability in the form of a decisive mandate appears elusive. 

This is likely to cause intense dismay to our governing elites, who refuse to learn to live with the inevitability of coalition politics, One thus should be prepared to witness post-poll shenanigans in the form of shifting alliances, break-ups and mergers. However, this desperate papering over the parliamentary cracks is likely to do little to stem the rot of increasing voter apathy and cynicism expressing disapproval with the choice offered.

Much as we might take pride in being the world's largest democracy, fifty years of regular elections have done little to improve active voter participation. Though abstinence from elections is more marked in the urban, better-off, upper caste voters whose turnout figures are significantly lower than those belonging to the poorer and weaker sections, this is no cause for cheer. 

'People like us' can possibly afford to ignore elections, more so since we can influence state policy differentially, the poor cannot. When they too either stay away or express greater volatility in their voting behaviour, the increasing rate of anti-incumbency at the constituency level is a good indicator, it is clear that our record of governance leaves a lot to be desired.

The 1999 South Asia Human Development Report points out that, of the population surveyed, 29 per cent have lost faith in the political system of the country. A slightly higher proportion, 36 per cent feel that our legal framework is unjust and no protective of people's right. More disturbing, nearly half, 49 per cent feel that their political party does not represent their interests. 

A substantial majority expresses clear dissatisfaction with the state of primary education, basic health care and infrastructure. But nothing more clearly reflects the disjunction between citizen demands and expectations and political rhetoric than the weightage voters give to improving education, controlling inflation and creating employment opportunities far cry from Kargil and the loss of national prde in having an imported leader.

If our governing elite the political, administrative and corporate class-is even half-way serious about checking the growing alienation from the system and ensuring social stability, it needs to work at creating a consensus for an agenda of humane governance. 

Without reestablishing a fresh compact with the people one marked by transparency, accountability and decentralisation-our growing debt burdens and eroding institutional capacities may well lead to a collapse of democracy. 

As has often been stressed in the past, we do have considerable human and institutional resources that can be mobilised to advance humane governane. Much of this capacity has been frittered away due to muitiple obstacles, not the least because the state is unable to decide upon where to intervene and where to let go. Instead of

exercising greater control over economic activities from production to tradewhat we need is much greater investments in basic human needs. in provisioning a social safety net for the poor, and above all a concerted effort at credit and land reform. Accompanying this reprioritisation of state effort must be a simplification of the laws, rules and procedures governing economic and civic life.

Little of the above is likely to take place in the absence of the political class becoming not only more responsible to both their constituents and the nation but being held accountable for its acts. Thus the increasing clamour for political reform-starting with political parties not only holding regular elections but having their accounts regularly audited, 

improving electoral rols, eschewing the the tendency of legislating through ordinances, improving the effectiveness of parliamentary committees as watchdogs over the exeutive, and so on. Nothing, however, has destroyed the credibility of the political class than a widespread perception of its corruption. 

The regular trading of chargesfrom Bofors to Telecom and Sugaragate-does little to stem the apprehension. Studies on South Asian corruption indicate that unlike other parts of the world, our corruption occurs up-stream, not down-stream; most of the corrupt gains are stashed away abroad; that our corruption often leads to promotion rather than imprisonment. 

Given the huge economic and social costs of coruption in a poor society-lower access to basic services, regressive taxation, and missed investment opportunities-this is one key area that needs immediate attention.

Unfortunately, previous experience at combating top-end corruption generates low confidence. And while fragile coalitions inhibit deterrent action (remember Jayalalitha), huge majorities imbue the ruling dispensation with arrogance, a feeling that it is above the law. 

Possibly, the only option is to activate greater citizen vigilance and participation-through an activist media or campaigns like the one on the right to information. Otherwise we may well become hapless spectators to the steady unravelling of our system.