India’s Election Results Hold Jeopardy
The current month-long Indian elections, whose results emerge on Friday and Saturday, hold more jeopardy than almost any in the past for both domestic policies and likely impacts on India’s attitudes towards the West.
First, let’s note that India and its democracy are inspirational for the world. This country of nearly 1.2 billion has over 714 million voters of whom about 350 million voted. Over 52% actually cast ballots in 828,000 polling stations across 543 constituencies secured by over 6 million election officials and police. That turnout is less than the 55%-62% of previous elections.
India’s democracy operates in a very dangerous neighborhood. It includes a hostile, unstable and violent Pakistan, a cool and treacherous China, the dreadful dictatorship in Myanmar, a chaotic Maoist-dominated Nepal, a war torn Sri Lanka and a desperately poor and awfully governed Bangladesh.
The country faces tremendous challenges of economic development while fending off frequent terrorism and a corrupt middle level bureaucracy.
It is inspirational that the world’s most diverse and lumbering nation with hundreds of major languages and all religions and cultures is not only surviving but moving forward. More than 40 million people are overcoming poverty each year. By 2025, its middle class is expected to equal the entire US population. Their average income will be a quarter of the US, but that makes a lot of avid consumers. Its movies, arts and economic growth bear witness to its cultural energy and vigor.
India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. These religions cover nearly 3 billion people spread east of the Indus River through China to Japan, Korea and Bali.
It is also the world’s third largest Islamic nation with over 150 million Muslims and Christianity has thrived for nearly 2000 years. It has sheltered Jewish synagogues and communities since the Romans burnt the second temple. It protects the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture, which China is currently destroying in Tibet. The remnants of ancient Zoroastrians, who predate Jews, Christians and Muslims, still flourish in India. It has also given refuge to Armenians, Syrians and many others.
Its economy is said to have been the world’s richest for 1500 years out of the previous 2000 and was the second largest only 200 years ago.
India has had three Muslim Presidents, its current Prime Minister is a Sikh and the leader of its traditional Congress Party is a Catholic woman. Its current President is a Hindu woman who succeeded an austere rocket scientist who practiced a true Islam unknown in bigoted Saudi Arabia and Iran.
That said, the current national political spectrum is more fractured than in the past and progress towards a stable two-alliance democracy has slowed down to a crawl. Neither of the two main political formations, Congress and BJP, has a charismatic leader of countrywide stature who can be a focal point for followers. And neither has the strength to clearly dominate an alliance or coalition.
Over half of India’s population is below 25 years but its politicians are dishearteningly elderly. The two leading Prime Ministerial contenders are 76 and 82 years old!
Trepidation arises because a weak government or wider political instability at the federal level is the last thing that the beleaguered West needs at this time for a variety of reasons.
From Washington’s perspective, the most serious reason for apprehension is the increasingly poor governance of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The totalitarian Islamic adversaries Americans fear most are gaining ground. Cool heads in India are vital if the terrorists start a proxy war on Indian territory as US firepower pushes them eastward. Nobody expects panic in India but a weak and populist coalition in Delhi may be less patient and be unable to handle pressures for a military reaction against Pakistan.
India is a relatively well-governed country compared with Pakistan and Afghanistan but terrorists with modern weapons and hardened by war could start to take control of its wild frontier lands just as they have in Pakistan’s verdant Swat valley.
Another reason is the continuing difficulty of saving the global economy. Political weakness in Delhi may become a drag on global recovery because of massive poverty, especially if exports decline and India is forced to borrow heavily for balance of payments adjustment.
Others include the need to stop Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon and nationalistic resurgence in Russia and China. For all of these, India’s cooperation with President Barack Obama and others is vital.
The elections were the noisiest and most expensive in the history of Indian democracy but the most worrisome aspect is that almost no major economic or social issue was debated. Almost the entire discussion was about coalition politics and who was betraying or allying with whom. (The next article will provide more on this aspect).
The last thing the world needs now in Delhi is a weak coalition lead by insular old people without a firm grip on major economic, social and security issues. But that is the elections’ most likely outcome.