India can be an anchor of stability

The Daily Yomiuri

June 5, 2009

If the test of authenticity of elections is the ability to throw up surprise results, India's democracy is in robust health.

Even Congress party strategists exult that the results exceeded their wildest expectations. Manmohan Singh is the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to be returned to power after a full five-year term.

The 262-158 margin for the Congress-led alliance over that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (compared to 179-174 in the outgoing parliament) confounded analysts and exit polls. Congress gained 61 seats; the BJP and the communist parties lost 22 and 33, respectively. From level pegging in votes with the BJP in 2004, this year Congress beat the BJP by 10 percentage points--29 percent of votes cast compared with 19 percent.

The number of serious challenges confronting the country do not diminish: financial crisis, terrorism, Maoist insurgency (16 policemen were killed in an attack in Maharashtra on Thursday), a woefully antiquated educational system, debilitating poverty, choking infrastructure, climate change, food and water insecurity, and fragile states in the neighborhood.

But India will be much better equipped to deal with them. Instead of volatility and instability, it will have a strong and stable government pursuing cohesive, market friendly and socially inclusive policies without any aggressive foreign policy agenda. Domestic and foreign analysts and investors alike will be reassured.

The electoral process and the institutional strengths underpinning it deserve fulsome tribute. The counting of 420 million votes began on time at 8 a.m. on the scheduled day, the overall trend was clear within hours and the final outcome was known the same day. A simple, inexpensive but effective electronic voting machine made in, for and by India worked wondrously well (it could be used in Afghanistan and other developing countries).

There have been no allegations of the elections having been stolen, a la Kenya, Zimbabwe and the United States (in 2000). Defeated parties gracefully accepted the voters' verdict, congratulated the victors and engaged in self-introspection rather than street demonstrations. The victors did not gloat nor imprison the defeated, but thanked the voters and promised to deliver on expectations. The very normalcy of the process and the outcome is striking.

The results are gratifying: Every prospect pleases and many vile men have been humbled. Congress campaigned on competence, inclusiveness and market-friendly economic policies that would not neglect the poor as the nation moves forward confidently. Sycophancy toward India's political dynasty surfaced when some argued for Rahul Gandhi as the next prime minister. This encouraged an epidemic of wannabe prime ministers from the clutch of regional parties and a torrent of belittling comments from the BJP on Singh being but a place warmer, a weak and vacillating prime minister who took orders from the Gandhi family.

The attacks produced a threefold result. The election turned into a referendum on Singh. Sonia Gandhi, son Rahul and daughter Priyanka teamed up to insist that Singh was the party's undisputed choice for prime minister. Singh has had a calming influence amid terrorist attacks and the financial crisis. He is decent, honest, unassuming, mild mannered, soft-spoken and likable: qualities that are rare among India's politicians and sit well with Indians. Attacking him produced a backlash. Economic opportunities had indeed been squandered over the last five years. But the public blamed this on the obstructionist coalition parties rather than on Singh.

The hold of the first family on the party, government and country has been consolidated. Rahul (38) was the party's star campaigner, with the heaviest schedule. He proved a crowd puller and an astute strategist, deciding to go it alone in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (80 seats).

The gamble paid off not just there but also elsewhere.

The election was won in the crucial swing states of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In these, the Congress alliance tally increased from 47 in 2004 to 124; the BJP-led alliance's fell from 81 to 45; and the communist parties' from 44 to 15. Rahul is the inevitable next party leader and will likely enter the cabinet. Perhaps Singh could set another precedent by retiring at 80 in three years' time and handing over to Rahul. Ironically for a dynastic scion, among Gandhi's pet projects is democratization of the party.

Rahul and Priyanka presented younger Congress faces despite its septuagenarian prime minister. The BJP, banking on the 81-year old Lal Krishna Advani as its prime minister hopeful, failed to attract young voters. The party positively repelled them and the moderate majority when fundamentalist Hindus attacked Christians in Orissa and young girls at a disco in Mangalore. It alienated its core constituency by an opportunistic and hypocritical opposition to the nuclear deal with the United States, which most Indians support.

Attacked for his record on terrorism, Singh unexpectedly counterpunched by reminding voters of Advani's hand-wringing during the string of terrorist attacks, including on Parliament, when he was home minister; the notorious release of hard-core terrorists to the Taliban in Kandahar; the expensive yearlong full military mobilization that led nowhere; the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya; and the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

The BJP cannot resolve a cancerous tension. Like the U.S. Republican Party, it cannot reach a broader constituency while appealing to militant Hinduism, but will lose its core Hindu base if it dilutes its ideological purity. It could neither embrace nor repudiate the virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric of the "other" Nehru-Gandhi scion, Varun Gandhi--Parliament will now have two mother-son combinations from the family on rival aisles.

Again like the Republicans, this tension will affect its search for fresh leaders. On top of which, the BJP entrapped itself in the disastrous Republican strategy of trying to win an election on the basis of fear and divisiveness with an angry old man as the party champion. By contrast, like U.S. President Barack Obama, Singh is cool, calm and unflappable.

The communist and left parties, ostensible Congress allies exercising power without responsibility from outside the government, had hobbled pro-market reforms and pro-U.S. foreign policies. They have been killed off as serious players for the next five years. May they rest in peace. In the ruling alliance, Congress by itself has 206 seats, up from 145 in 2004, and the first time since 1991 that any single party has crossed the 200 mark. It will call the shots in the new government.

By the same token, next time the Congress party will lack excuses for failures of governance and results. For the other positive feature of this year's election is that good governance has been rewarded. Bad governance, nonperformance, corruption and criminality have been punished.

This has been done at the price of caste calculations that dominated in the past. The election with a 95,000 majority of Shashi Tharoor--the high-profile, talented, telegenic and ambitious former U.N. official who came tantalizingly close to becoming the secretary general--shows people respond less to charges of carpetbagging and more to perceptions of competence and qualifications.

The policy agenda will focus on more market opening reforms--disinvestment of public sector firms, liberalization of foreign investment rules, financial and banking sector reforms, cutbacks in subsidies--and more integration with the world economy--through tariff reductions and import liberalization--and the international community.

As we survey the wreckage of nation and democracy-building efforts in countries around it--Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan--India stands out as an oasis of regime stability, democratic legitimacy and economic progress.

For all its own challenges, India can be an anchor of stability and a partner for outsiders wishing to consolidate progress in the ring of fragile and troubled states. Regional countries and the international community should engage with India as a potential solution and not part of the problem of the pathology of failing states.

Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at The Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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