May 21,2009

India Democracy Triumphs, Country on a Hopeful Trajectory

By Shen Dingli, Shanghai

At a cost of some US $2 billion, the 700 million-strong electorate of Indian has cast its votes in the latest month-long election. This vast democracy, the world's largest by far, has again demonstrated its ability to peacefully choose its leaders. This is ample good reason to send very best congratulations to India.

India's experience challenges the presumption that an under-educated populace is unqualified for popular election. India's economic output may be just a quarter of its even more populous northern neighbor, while literacy levels remain much lower.  Still, it has yet again strenuously demonstrated that democracy does not have to be unique to the West.

India's Congress Party came out a clear winner in this election, taking 200 seats out the 543 in India's parliament, confounding pundit forecasts of a hung race between Congress and its bitter rivals, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Congress will still have to form a coalition to rule, but it will be able to do so without the divisive parties of the far left who stifled much of the efforts of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to push through reforms. Most of them lost out badly in this election.

The unforeseen victory of Congress indicates the general satisfaction of the Indian people with the direction of Indian economy. As politics tends to be local, this election was a grassroots evaluation of the government's performance over the past five years, and shows India’s readiness to take next step towards becoming a great power.

Since the early 90s, the Indian government has been addressing the issue of economic development. India’s annual economic output has in the past several years been increasing at an average pace of 9%, at least until the recent global financial crisis. Though India is far behind China in terms of infrastructure development, it has made headway. Highways have emerged in metropolitan areas and are now crowded with cars ?many of them new. India has thrilled its people by successfully launching a lunar obiter. It has also secured civilian nuclear cooperation with America.

The Congress Party owes much of its success to its attention to India's rural areas and care for the needs of its peasants, which constitute the majority of the population. Even some southern states traditionally dominated by various Communist parties switched to Congress this time.

Apparently, politics in India is transforming.  In a country with long and fractious history and the heavy burden of the caste system, personal prestige and family reputation have traditionally tended to edge out party programs as election draws, reinforced by poverty and low literacy. Merely having the vote has not been enough to truly enfranchise the poorest and the lowest.

However, access to education has been improving with accelerating economic development. And with the average age of the population a mere 25.1 years, Indians are increasingly interested in seeing a change on the political stage. The emergence of the 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the Nehru/Gandhi family in national politics, was one of the appealing factors in this election.

Though Congress will find it easier to craft a new government this time, India's march to global status remains challenging. The huge ethnic divisions in the country, the massive poverty, and the vast disparity among classes are a continual drag on its modernization, not to mention the constant threat of terrorism from both domestic and foreign sources.

But with this latest, very successful exercise in democracy and a continuing strong economy, India looks set to enter its future with greater confidence.

As an ever growing power, India will find itself in a more advantageous position vis-à-vis its South Asian neighbors. This provides India with more policy choices ?it can be more forceful in showing off its strength, or more flexible in reconciling its relations with its neighbors.

While India's added strength might be still dwarfed by China's, the competition between China and India will go on. But given their weight, both countries will find it better to promote cooperation and avoid confrontation. If they can handle their relations as China and the US are doing ?taking care of respective core interests ?they can manage a competitive partnership constructively.

The India-US relationship will develop further, also. As a major developing market, India needs to entice America, much as China has done, though there is a limit of the strategic inclination of India-US relations. Obviously, both Washington and New Delhi might look to each other to balance China’s rise, but America may have greater interest in working with China, as a military and economic power, to help stabilize the world.

India dreams of gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  It must attain its objective eventually, as 1.2 billion people cannot forever be denied. But India has much preparation to do-further lifting its economy to the benefit of all of its people, playing a constructive role in peace and stability in South Asia and beyond, and respecting and taking care of the legitimate interests of other stakeholders.

We have great respect and admiration of India, and wish India well on its hopeful trajectory of improving its welfare and relations with the world.


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