India Election May Renew Climate Leadership

After a month-long election in India, the ruling Congress Party expanded its power with an influx of politicians who appear more likely to address climate change and the broader environmental agenda.

The re-election of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), lead by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party, is likely to bring no immediate shifts in India's approach to climate change. But several young candidates may influence Congress's stance.

Among the new government's expected early actions, detailed strategy documents will outline national plans to address climate change. The documents were delayed due to the elections.

The UPA placed significant emphasis on the National Action Plan on Climate Change during its pre-election campaign. The plan includes a goal to increase production of photovoltaic solar panels to 1,000 megawatts per year. It also turns to efficiency, reforestation, and adaptation measures.

"This is a start, but we need a lot more," said Malini Mehra, founder and chief executive of the Centre for Social Markets, a nongovernmental organization that specializes in corporate responsibility, sustainability, and climate change.

"Congress must show vision and leadership to get a deal at COP15 that is good for India and good for the world," she said, referring to upcoming international climate talks in Cophenhagen, Denmark, this December.

Mehra joined a delegation of Indian environmental leaders in a tour of Washington, D.C., this week. The group met with U.S. political leaders and environmentalists to demonstrate that, despite the election's focus on economic growth, many within India are demanding greater domestic and global action to tackle climate change.

Members of the delegation said that urgency has yet to materialize in India. Still, many in the country's poor rural areas would be willing to embrace renewable energy if the technologies were properly financed, said Harish Hande, co-founder of SELCO, a Bangalore-based solar energy company.

"Renewable energy for the poor is a no brainer," Hande said. "I don't see any other solution quite frankly."

Prem Shankar Jha, a media columnist and member of the Washington delegation, said that it is too soon to know how India will act in Copenhagen. "Their stance is constantly evolving," Jha said.

Confounding predictions of a closer battle, the UPA won 262 seats in the election. The party took a distinct lead over the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won 157 seats and came in second.

To reach a majority in the Indian Parliament, the governing Alliance must achieve 272 seats out of 543, meaning that over the coming days Congress will need to recruit an additional 10 allies from smaller independent parties.

The Alliance may recruit young politicians who are potentially more environmentally focused, including Rahul Gandhi, the son of Congress President Sonia Gandhi; Sandeep Dixit, the current MP for East Delhi and son of Delhi's Chief Minister; Sachin Pilot, the current MP for the Dausa constituency in Rajasthan; and Jitin Prasad, the current Minister of State for Steel and MP for a district in Uttar Pradesh, according to the Election Commission,

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the rest of India's cabinet resigned on May 18, and the process for forming a new government under his leadership is expected to be completed by May 22, following his formal re-appointment as Prime Minister by current Indian President Pratibha Patil, the swearing in of the new Cabinet, and a confidence vote from the Indian House of Commons.

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute Fellow based in New Delhi. Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute's online news service Eye on Earth. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.