29 April 2014
Lifting women out of poverty

The joy of Indian democracy!

The whole world is simply enthralled by India's elections currently underway. We are captivated by the joy of Indian democracy. The Chinese should be jealous!

The whole world is simply enthralled by India's elections currently underway. We are captivated by the joy of Indian democracy. The Chinese should be jealous!

This election pits two rival camps against each other.

On one side is the Congress Party. Tired. Incompetent. Corrupt. No serious plan. And with a reluctant leader, Rahul Gandhi, who by birth is virtually forced to wear the mantel of the Party of his great grandfather, Nehru. But he is directed by his Italian mother, Sonia Gandhi.

On the other side is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), representing Hindu nationalism. It is led by Narendra Modi, who started life as a tea seller and has been Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat for the past decade or so. Modi is reputedly responsible for Gujarat's economic miracle. And his supporters believe he can bring his pro-business agenda to Delhi, with a decisive leadership style that Congress has lacked under Manmohan Singh these past eight years.

Refreshingly, Modi is not a dynastic politician. But he is tainted by his alleged responsibility for the massacre of Muslims in 2002. Legally, the courts have not found him guilty. But morally, he is considered responsible by many. In 2005, the US State Department revoked Modi's visa under an American law that bars a foreign official who "was responsible for or directly carried out ... particularly severe violations of religious freedom".

With a Modi victory now very much on the cards, the US Ambassador in Delhi recently paid Modi a visit to restore contacts. But the fear of his detractors is still that he would pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda in Delhi.

Neither of the two leading national parties will win an outright majority. They will have to forge a coalition with some of the gaggle of smaller parties. There are some 370 political parties, often regionally-based, which are also running for office.

While the Indian media is full of election fever, the international media has also caught the bug. A recent edition of the Economist magazine, with Modi's face on the cover page, asks "can anyone stop Narendra Modi?". But this London voice for Modi-style for economic rationality refuses to support the divisive character. "India deserves better" is its conclusion

Narendra Modi would be the most disliked world figure right now, according to a recent Time magazine poll. According to the British Guardian newspaper, "if Modi is elected, it will bode ill for India's future". "Can India trust this man?" asks Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. The BBC website analyses "how India is split over the BJP's Narendra Modi".

A panel discussion recently organized by the London-based Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) came up with a more positive assessment. Panellists Lord Meghnad Desai, Deepak Lalwani and Avinash Vaziran argued that Modi was the right man at the right time to inject the reforming zeal needed to put India back among the first rank of expanding powers on the world stage.

According to the Australian newspaper "Modi's message deserves attention for a subtler reason ... the chief minister wrapped a call for economic competitiveness in a broader message of hope, ambition and national pride."

The 25 million strong Indian diaspora is also active in the election discussions. Distinguished economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that India desperately needs a Modi victory, because Modi gets things done. "If Modi doesn't come to power", says Bhagwati, "I am not optimistic about India". Bhagwati's nemesis, Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, does not support Modi.

Whatever the outcome of the Indian elections, the world is astonished at the scale of the enterprise. Over 800 million people vote at some 930,000 polling stations, with 1.7 million electronic voting machines. The process is staggered over 5 weeks from April 7 to May 12, with nine phases of polling. At the time of writing, we are now in the midst of this process.

The elections are managed by an independent and impartial Election Commission, which has been improving the transparency of voter registration procedures. In a country well known for its bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, "polling procedures are generally considered to be conducted in a transparent, impartial and correct manner", according to Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation.

India's colourful elections are in sharp contrast with the non-transparent, closed-shop Chinese approach. The only saving grace of Chinese political transitions is the potential for intriguing speculation and gossip, resulting from their lack of openness. In fact, China is becoming more boring by the day -- the government has just halted streaming of "The Big Bang Theory", "The Good Wife" and two other American television shows!

In the midst of this massive exercise in democracy, many are wont to say that it is a distraction from India's main challenge of tackling its immense poverty, hunger and corruption. But as every Indian will tell you, they are greatly attached to their social and political freedoms, and proud to be different from China in that regard.

Nobel-prize winner Amartya Sen is correct to point out that one of the reasons that India's development has lagged behind that of China is its insufficient public investment in the education and health of its citizens, especially the poor. But development requires good governance, not authoritarian governance. And most authoritarian regimes do not invest in their citizens, as the case of North Korea testifies.

India's widespread protests against corruption and rape, led by its middle classes and youth, seem to be having an impact in the current elections, and bode well for the future. Indeed, urbanization and the fast growing middle class are shaking up the foundations of India's dynastic democracy, with a whole new range of candidates now running for office.

The contrast with China could not be more stark. Chinese President XI Jingping is waging a vigorous anti-corruption campaign, and at the same time he puts anti-corruption campaigners in jail.

Meanwhile in India, an-anti corruption political party, Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party, AAP) sprung to life in November 2012, and won 28 of the 70 seats in the 2013 Delhi legislative assembly election. It is now contesting seats in the national election, including all those in Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

While we can marvel at India's election underway, we cannot ignore the entrenched corruption in the process. As the Bertelsmann Foundation also said "buying votes and bribing voters are widespread practices among political parties in India, which substantially corrupts the whole election process".

But close examination of the US and other Western countries suggests that we can all do better. "The US is an oligarchy, not a democracy", according to a recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Economic elites and organised groups representing business interests are found to have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

Indians should celebrate and enjoy the joy of their democracy, for the next few weeks at least. The Chinese might be more rich. But their politics is not nearly as much fun!


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, india's elections, Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party, India's Congress Party, Aam Aadmi Party

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