Disenfranchised or Impatient?
Recent elections in India have cast light into an event that has been misinterpreted by some people and by the analytical pundits. The prevailing theory is that the BJP was thrown out because there was no effort on its part to help the poor and they failed to show any concern regarding the uplift of the villagers. But it is also possible that the trickle of reform to the poor was too slow and the expectation of poor class had been whetted by the changes taking place around them.
The aspirations of the poor and people of the lower castes led to an impatience with the rate of reform. The financial revolution that benefited the middle class had not reached the people at the lower strata of society fast enough. The statistics clearly show that both urban and agrestic rate of poverty has fallen significantly in the last decade. However, this statistic was lost on the impatient rural voters during this election, as the ruling party was not credited with this success.
Compared to the poor and uneducated masses of people in India, the American poor are much better positioned, both financially and educationally. But the American poor are apathetic and do not vote with the same vigor as their Indian counterparts. The largest democracy in the world seems to understand the workings of democracy better than the oldest democracy in the world. What is also remarkable is the gargantuan election process that took several weeks to complete went smoothly, without any hitch. There was hardly any complaint of vote rigging or fraud. Astonishing, compared to the record of other third world countries.
What went wrong?
BJP felt invulnerable and the progress it had made in the last five years gave them a hope that they would be rewarded by fair minded voters with a thumping victory. The indomitable Mr. Vajpayee thought that another mandate from the people will give him more breathing room to continue the reforms that had gathered tremendous momentum in the last couple of years. However, BJP could not get beyond the tag that it was a Hindu nationalist party. The origins of BJP could be construed as more radical and nationalistic. But once in power, it had moved to a more centrist and secular position. After all, it was BJP who chose Abdul Kalam, form the Muslim minority, as the President of India. Yet, the party could not shake off the title as Hindu nationalistic radical party.
Road towards truce with Pakistan was not welcomed by the right wing of the party. After the communal riots in Gujarat, a more radical step demanded by the extreme right wingers did not materialize. The party had to face a double edged sword during this election. One was from the liberal minded people for not bringing reform to their doorstep sooner. The other was from the right wing voters who were dissatisfied with the party moving to the center and not being 'Hindu' enough. In the end the party was unable to walk the fine line and succumbed to an unexpected defeat.
The fractiousness within the Congress party as to who should be the prime minister took tumultuous turns following the announcement of results of the election. Sonia Gandhi, who rightfully owned that part was wise to step aside, so as not to inflame the passions of the people. This in spite of many in her party demanding that she should accept the position. Some zealots even threatened to commit suicide (one man stood in front of her residence with a gun on his own head), if she declined.
Indians are by no means xenophobic but their pride would have been hurt and the controversy would have festered like a boil that would not heal. But then it is also true that Indians are infatuated with the white skin. They will grovel without hesitation in front of a white woman; even compare her to one of the many goddesses. But Sonia's refusal after all the pleading and cajoling is a crafty move on her part. She can now pave the way for her son, Rahul to take the helm of the party some day in the future. Rahul has won a seat in the parliament during this election. Now she can remain in the background, but still in control, as the president of Congress Party. She can bide her time, all the while grooming her son to take over at the first opportunity.
In a historic moment Mr. Manmohan Singh took the oath as the Prime Minister. He is well respected and credited as the architect of the very financial revolution that the BJP pushed forward. It is perhaps fitting that he is once again in the lime light, after a hiatus of eight years, yet again to move the reform process forward.
Symbolically, the ceremony was a landmark event. India is the shining example of secularism gone right. This observation hopefully was not lost in the swearing-in ceremony. Here was a member of the minority Sikh sect taking his oath as the Prime Minister, presided by a Muslim President, while Christian Sonia Gandhi was close at hand, in a country where the majority population is Hindu.
Secularism has kept India together, and it is the only way peace and harmony can prevail in a vast diverse country like India. To see what can happen if religious fundamentalism takes hold in a country like India is easy. Just look across the border to Pakistan and beyond into the Arab lands, like Iraq. Three factions of the same religion cannot coexist in a country (Sunni, Shia and Kurd), where the people are held hostage by the religious fanatics. The only thing they know to do well is create bombs and destroy. While the Indian youth can consider religious differences as asset rather than liability, and learn how to write computer programs, the Arab youth, drunk on religious fervor learns how to make suicide bombs. Oppressed, unemployed, frustrated young Arabs are brainwashed into believing that better rewards await them in Paradise, if only they sacrifice their worthless bodies for a greater cause. Al-Qaida and their ilk have tapped into this sentiment of Muslim youth and exploited it to their advantage. Significance of the progress India has made by its tolerance of all religion is surely lost on them.
Unfortunately, no political party can uplift this mass of people with promises. They can promise utopia during election season but delivering on their promises is another matter. There obviously was a slow transformation of India as more and more people came into the circle of middle class. This transformation can never be fast and cannot be measured in a time frame of 'five years', a typical election cycle in India.
The government cannot create enough jobs but only the private sector can. It is the trickle down economy of capitalism that will eventually produce jobs for everyone in India and not the redistribution of wealth of socialism. Wealth has to flow from top down and there is no point in marginalizing everyone in the name of saving the poor.
The one thing the government can do is to provide basic education to all and make education mandatory, so that the poor can have a level playing field. The middle class reached its current state of prosperity by investing in education. Another worthy investment is to provide basic necessities like health care, clean water and electricity to all. Construction of roads for speedy transportation, so that the poor villagers can have easier access to the cities and towns will make a sea of change in their lifestyles. The government should create an atmosphere conducive for the private sector to flourish and then get out of the way. It was the electrification and building of roadways in America more than fifty years ago that put it on a fast track to prosperity. But all this is a slow agonizing process, no doubt.
The current political winners in India have the same track record of idleness when it comes to the less fortunate as the outgoing group. Until India makes a conscious decision to 'invest in the poor' and not just hand out favors during election season, the long term problems of the underprivileged class will not be solved.
All politics are local. The central government and the articles of its covenant may be noble and worthy but the implementation of policies has to have local political support. Otherwise the policy wonks can churn up all the policies that will never reach the villages. Unfortunately, no party has been able to solve the problem of corruption at local levels of government. If politicians muscle their way through elections only to reap the bonanza of new found power with bribes, no progress can occur. This has been an endemic problem with Indian politics and there is no end in sight.
Recent elections can be seen as referendum by Indians imposed on Indians to march on, in civility. A new team is brought in to iron out the wrinkles on the road towards reform. If this team fails to do it in a comprehensive manner, the people are wise enough to boot them and bring in another. But the reform horse is out of the barn and there is no turning back now.
So a new group has been nervously ushered in. But how difficult is it going to be to deliver to the exasperated poor what they desire? I would venture to say that it is enormously difficult and if the poor, who feel disenfranchised, do not have patience, it will be d'j' vu all over again during the next election cycle. The disgruntled voters will do exactly what they have done here, once again. Throw the rascals out again. This is because the only way the poor can exercise any power over the elite ruling class is in the polling booths and they know it.
Will the new government (a patchwork of disparate parties) control the fraudulent politicians and make them accountable, is the question only time will answer. If history is any guide, it is doubtful. What happened in 1977, with the excesses in the name of Maintenance of Internal Security of Indira Gandhi, and again in 2004 with the overconfidence of Vajpayee ' both were unceremoniously dumped - can happen again. Are the current events a major redirection in India's march towards prosperity or just a temporary blip? Perhaps the question will be answered sooner than later.