Judged by the capacity to throw up surprise results, India's democracy is in robust health. Even Congress Party strategists exult that the results in the just-concluded elections exceed their wildest expectations. The 261-159 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.
The magnitude and number of serious challenges confronting the country do not diminish: financial crisis, terrorism and Maoist insurgency, debilitating poverty, choking infrastructure, climate change, food and water insecurity, and fragile states in the neighbourhood. But India will be much better equipped to deal with them. Instead of volatility and instability, India will have a strong and stable government pursuing cohesive, market friendly and socially inclusive policies without any aggressive foreign policy agenda. The policy agenda will focus on more market-opening reforms, and closer integration with the international economy and community. 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 more than 400 million votes began on schedule at 8 a.m., the overall trend was clear within hours and the final outcome was known the same day. A simple and inexpensive electronic voting machine made in, for and by
India worked wondrously well (it could be used in Afghanistan and other developing countries): no allegations of the elections having been stolen, à la Kenya, Zimbabwe and the U.S. Defeated parties gracefully accepted the voters' verdict, congratulated the victors and will engage in self-introspection rather than street demonstrations. The victors did not display vulgar triumphalism 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 of the vile have been banished into political wilderness. Congress campaigned on competence, inclusiveness and market-friendly economic policies that would not neglect the poor as the nation moves forward confidently. Sycophancy towards India's first political dynasty surfaced when some argued for Rahul Gandhi as the next prime minister. This encouraged an epidemic of wannabe PMs from the clutch of regional parties and a torrent of belittling comments from the BJP on Manmohan Singh being but a place-warmer, a weak and vacillating PM who took orders from the Gandhi family.
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 PM. Singh has had a calming influence amidst terror attacks and the financial crisis. He is decent, honest, unassuming, mild mannered and likable: qualities that are both 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 was the party's star campaigner with the heaviest schedule. He proved a crowd puller and an astute strategist, taking political risks that have paid handsome electoral dividends.
Rahul and Priyanka presented younger Congress faces despite its septuagenarian PM. The BJP, banking on 81-year-old Lal Krishna Advani as its PM hopeful, failed to attract the youth. It positively repelled them and the moderate majority when fundamentalist Hindus attacked young girls at a disco in Mangalore. The party alienated its core constituency by an opportunistic and hypocritical opposition to the nuclear deal with the U.S. which most Indians support. 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. This tension will affect its search for fresh leaders.
The communist and left parties, ostensible Congress allies, had hobbled pro-market reform and pro-U.S. foreign policies. They have been killed off as serious players for the next five years; may they rest in peace. Congress by itself has 206 (up from 145) of the alliance's 261 seats. It will call the shots in the new government.
Good governance has been rewarded on a state-by-state performance of ruling parties. Bad governance, non-performance, corruption and criminality have been punished. This has been done at the price of caste calculations that dominated in the past.
Surveying the wreckage of nation and democracy building efforts in countries around it, 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 begin thinking of India as a potential solution and not part of the problem of the pathology of failing states.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International affairs and Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.