Springtime for India
Michael Binyon weighs up the votes
The world's biggest democracy is learning the habits of prosperity. For almost the first time since independence, India looks to be choosing a new government not on the basis of religion, dynasty or regional tensions, but in the hope of getting richer. Like Harold Macmillan's boast that "you've never had it so good," Atal Bihari Vajpayee trumpeted: "India shining." And the voters are being won over. The frail and formerly undistinguished machine politician has become a revered figure. Suddenly he is seen by his countrymen as the symbol of India's new wealth, global influence and pursuit of reconciliation. And in his most recent coup, he even delivered victory in the one area that matters to most voters: beating Pakistan at cricket. Little wonder that he seems set for further office.
India's general election marks a turning point. Most previous contests were decided largely according to regional, religious or caste allegiance. Congress maintained its grip on the country long after its policies were exhausted because of the magic of the Gandhi name. That magic was stretched to the limit to deliver votes for the Italianborn and politically incoherent Sonia Gandhi, although her son and daughter have begun to revive dynastic fortunes. But Congress has been unable to keep pace with India's economy, now racing ahead at an annual 8 per cent growth.
Neither did the regional parties, which played such big roles as makers and breakers of coalitions in the past decade, find it profitable any more to run against the central government; it was better instead to associate themselves with the boom.
Most importantly, perhaps, the election eclipsed the ageold communal divisions. Hindu nationalism, which originally brought the BJP to power and seemed set to exacerbate the clash with religious minorities, has been tamed by the experience of government. A prime minister who took his country to the brink of nuclear war to intimidate its Muslim neighbour and underline India's strategic superiority, found that there were more votes instead in peace. And for the first time, many middleclass Indians, who would never have dreamed of supporting a party so clearly at odds with Nehru's secular tradition, were seduced by promises of wealth, stability and the chance to realise their ambitions.
"India Shining" was a clever slogan. In fact, India's economic boom has been gathering pace for some years. Its architect was not the BJP but the farsighted Congress finance minister Manmohan Singh, who realised in 1991 when India was mired in stagnation, its foreign currency reserves all but exhausted, that the socialist, protectionist model had failed. He opened the door a crack, liberalised the economy a little and allowed the torrent of private enterprise to pour in. India had a lot of catching up to do, however. China, the vast rival to the north that once seemed so backward, so secretive, was roaring ahead. Its growth was faster, its economy stronger, and its share of foreign investment far ahead of India's. Even three years ago, Indian businessmen were gloomy about China.
That mood has changed completely. India's concentration on IT quickly established peaks of excellence that had global implications. A country long associated with blackouts, bureaucracy and bullock carts became instead the home to call centres that were speaking to the world. Now it has gone further, and used its vast yearly graduation of engineers to challenge the advanced economies of the West in their strongest field, the knowledge industry. The offshore business processing centres in Bangalore and Hyderabad, Chennai and Bombay are not only managing the business strategies of bluechip companies in America, Britain and Europe; they are themselves now racing ahead to become the centre of computerbased innovation, setting up Indian offshoots in Western economies.
Peaks of excellence do not guarantee steady growth, and by definition leave large troughs of poverty across the country. But they get India noticed. And they are now beginning not only to change India's own selfconfidence and perception of itself, but to reach out to the huge rural sector, still almost 70 per cent of the population. In one southern state, Karnataka, for example, all village land registry records have been put online. Now, if a farmer wants to sell his land, he no longer has to depend on the village headman, or pay the obligatory bribe; instead he can call up the net from one of the computer access points being set up in even distant villages. Previously, 80 per cent of legal cases centred on rows over the sale of land; at a stroke, the computer has solved one of Karnataka's biggest social problems.
The IT revolution has accelerated other knowledgebased sectors: pharmaceuticals, health care, broadcasting and even satellite technology, where India is winning new world markets. All are middleclass industries and all fuel the need and desire for education and social change. It is now estimated that India's middle class, defined as anyone who can manage a little English, comprises 350 million people: a vast and powerful segment, eager to pursue standard middleclass material aspirations. This is now determining Indian politics far more than village poverty, once the preoccupation of Congress.
Prosperity is now linked in many Indian minds to democracy. And this is why China seems less of a threat. Yes, China may be growing faster, Indians admit. But its monolithic system is brittle. India, by contrast, has absorbed so many political shocks in its chequered history that little now seems to threaten its stability. And that, in turn, means that change, when it comes, is better rooted.
Add to this the sudden prospect of peace with Pakistan, a vast potential saving in military expenditure, a growth in foreign confidence and most importantly the result of an exceptionally good monsoon, and India does indeed appear to be shining. Mr Vajpayee wisely decided to make hay.
NOTE: Since going to press it appears that the BJP has unexpectedly lost the Indian elections and Mr Vajpayee is set to resign as prime minister. For more information, see :http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3708109.stm