In this Election, Choose Long-Term Vision Over Short-Term Gains

As the world's biggest exercise in democracy gets underway, there is a sense of expectation and anticipation. With an electorate of 714 million people eligible to vote, there is a tremendous opportunity for the people of India to elect a government that will deliver results and improve the growth trajectory of the country.

In the present election environment of personal attacks and popular slogans, it is important to look at the long term implications and a concrete developmental agenda.

India's parliamentary elections are taking place at a time when the world is at a crossroads and the country has emerged as a highly significant global voice. While at one level the elections are necessarily about domestic challenges such as economic development and security, at another level they are also about the role India can play in shaping the world as the largest pluralistic democracy.

It is from the perspective of the role India ought to play on the global stage, especially in light of the global financial meltdown and associated opportunities for India and the world, that it is important that a clear verdict emerge.

The presence of a large number of regional parties in our polity affirms the vibrant nature of democracy in India. However, after laying the foundation for a great economy since 1991, India cannot afford to squander away all its gains and strengths because of a fractured mandate. The country needs a clearly defined economic, social, political, educational, cultural and scientific agenda and the ability to execute it.

Like all elections, this one too is about the future. It is about the future of 550 million people below the age of 25. Equally, it is about hundreds of millions of Indians who still languish on the margins of society and are denied basic opportunities. We owe it to them to produce a government that is not constrained by competing regional ambitions, but instead governed by a nationally collective vision for the 21st century.

One aspect of this collective vision should arise from the recognition that India can be the most effective counter against the rising tide of violent fundamentalism in the subcontinent which has a direct bearing on the stability of the world.

India can use its position as a responsible and stable democracy to galvanize international efforts towards regional stability. However, unless New Delhi has a government that is free from the compulsions of balancing coalition demands and short-term rent seeking, it cannot concentrate on effectively combating the destabilizing forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This inability can have serious consequences for India's own future and security.

The core of this collective vision should focus on creating inclusive growth strategies that seek to lift hundreds of millions of people at subsistence level to a better quality of life. Unless we have a government that is not looking over its shoulder about who might be out to dislodge it, it is not possible to put in place long-term plans and rational policy for overall progress and prosperity.

We must not create a situation where the country's prime minister has to continuously balance his priorities between pleasing coalition partners and the development agenda for the country.

A country in the midst of a generational transformation is bound to have many challenges, priorities and opportunities. These relate to security, economy, health, education, energy, infrastructure, agriculture, employment and more. From the perspective of the young, the twin concerns of education and employment are especially important.

Many of us are personally passionate about turning India's vast knowledge base into an asset which can help transform the country. It is not widely understood that our growing young population offers a unique demographic dividend which has the potential to transform the future course of development. To effectively harness this potential we need to invest in school, vocational and higher education with a clear focus on expansion, excellence and access.

We have to make sure that the poorest of the poor have the opportunity to get the best possible education in the country, irrespective of their background. To deliver on this unique opportunity, political will, with a strong government at the centre, is a decisive factor. This political will is possible only when we have a stable dispensation undistracted by extraneous challenges.

Unlike other political formations, today we need a nationally cohesive presence with a broad vision about how it wants the country to progress. The last five years of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government under Manmohan Singh have been generally effective in furthering many of the party's ideas for nation building and initiating an inclusive growth agenda. This is notwithstanding the pressures of a coalition government.

The choice we make becomes even more relevant in the wake of the global economic downturn. India has fared better than most other countries in coping with the global crisis. It is still the second-fastest growing economy in the world and its banking sector has largely escaped the crisis that has plagued big banks in many other emerging markets.

Yet, India is not de-hyphenated from global financial problems and is facing challenges of credit flow, unemployment, loss of exports and investments. Still, the global economic slowdown provides an interesting opportunity for India. In relative terms, it can be used to bolster growth, initiate more development and job creation.

At this stage we need to take advantage of the huge internal markets with a focus on the bottom of the pyramid. We also need people in the government that do not seek to divide India in narrowly defined sections based on identities and parochial concerns.

We need to continue to implement our unfinished reform agenda with a clear commitment to right to information, right to education, national rural employment guarantee programmes, rural health mission, education, roads, energy, foreign investment rules, labor laws, privatization of certain public sector initiatives, administrative reforms, judicial reforms, good governance, broadband connectivity etc.

Only through such a focused implementation agenda, backed by the right political will and strong and stable government at the centre, can we hope to build a prosperous India of the future where there will be no distinction between 'Bharat' and 'India'.

(Sam Pitroda is one of the world's leading technological minds and development thinkers. He can be reached at sam.pitroda@c-sam.com)  


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