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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
India: the world's biggest vote
Compared to what is happening in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, or indeed in a wider region not noted for democratic engagement, the elections in India are both to be saluted and celebrated. Saluted because the election shows a popular commitment to democracy, which goes back long before the arrival of the British, to the village parliament or panchayat. Celebrated because it produced the right result. The pundits, who to a man, predicted a weak and fractious coalition dependent on regional leaders, were stuffed. So was the rightwing Hindu nationalist BJP, which lost a large amount of territory. Congress was returned not just with a strong mandate but a national one.
This is important for the renewal of a 124-year-old party deemed to be in irreversible decline. It is even more important for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who invested substantial amounts of political as well as financial capital in a project during his first term, which defied conventional wisdom. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) provides 100 days of unskilled labour at the minimum wage to at least one member of a rural household. As an unashamed handout, the scheme has many critics. But as a substitute for absent social welfare, NREGA was a vote-winner. If Mr Singh is right to say that India is fissiparous, with vast rural swaths untouched by 9% growth rates in the last three years, then the solution has to be giving the poorest states such as Bihar a slice, however thin, of the national cake. The massive social welfare schemes Mr Singh launched in his first term were instrumental in his return to power. It runs counter to the Anglo-Saxon model with which too much of the world fell in love, but India's economy can not be run exclusively for and by its English-speaking urban elites.
If rural development emerged as the leitmotiv of the campaign, it is all the more surprising that India's new government should have yesterday named security and promoting Hindu-Muslim tolerance as its two priorities. It was, after all, the BJP which played the terror card with campaign ads showing its 81-year-old leader, LK Advani, pumping iron at the gym. And Mr Singh's resistance to calls for an attack on Pakistan after the Mumbai bombings did not emerge as an election issue. The BJP turned off voters with its strident anti-Muslim rhetoric, and with the record of Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister, who stood by during the riots in his state, in which 1,000 Muslims were killed. It is important to promote Hindu-Muslim tolerance, although this is not the central issue.
But the part that a strong Indian ¬government can play in regional security should not be underestimated. India's elites dislike being linked to a dysfunctional Pakistan, preferring to be ranked with China as a booming regional power. Delhi was horrified to think it would be included in Richard Holbrooke's Af-Pak regional remit, which in the end it was not. But none of that precludes the role that India could play in starting to defuse tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir. This could, in turn, work against the logic of Pakistan's military and security elites who persist in viewing India as the existential threat.
Talks started under the now discredited Gen Pervez Musharraf. It would be extraordinarily difficult to continue under the fire of suicide squads trained on, and despatched from, Pakistani soil. It may not be easy to persuade India to make concessions on Kashmir to a weak government in Islamabad. But it is impossible to think of a regional Af-Pak solution without India. And it is all too easy to imagine a US withdrawal under fire if India is ignored.
India is more than a country. It is also an idea, expressed by Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar (the untouchable who wrote so much of India's constitution). As India grows in regional importance, the challenge will be to express that idea clearly and attractively to others.