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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pull-back from the brink

In one fell swoop, the world’s largest, most diverse electorate pulled the country back from the brink. In deference to the aspirations of the rising middle class, the centre held and gave the country a real chance against the barbarism that has threatened to sink it. Going into India’s 15th general election, posturing politicians and clueless media created a scare that India was doomed to uncertainty, its future mortgaged to small-time caste chieftains and fringe fascist groups.

Meanwhile, the BJP was at its hectoring loudest with its communal propaganda. The Left pretended to be a rallying point for petty regional satraps, who seemed to spring from every nook and cranny. Nobody gave the Congress a chance, writing it off as a spent force with no grassroots support.

The recently concluded first term of the UPA government was notable for the boorish behaviour of the opposition BJP and the churlish support of the Left parties. The BJP blatantly refused to let Parliament function with its vocal opposition and strong-arm tactics. The Left, an erstwhile UPA ally, embarked on a foolhardy course of confrontation with the prime minister that eventually led to a rupture.

Fortunately, timely backing of the Samajwadi Party helped the government win the confidence vote precipitated by the Left’s withdrawal of support over the Indo-US nuclear deal. But even then the BJP persisted with its dramatic obstructionism, producing legislators waving wads of money in the well of the house; money they claimed was offered to them to switch sides. Meanwhile, the Mayawati-led BSP circled over this melee like a vulture hoping to scavenge the remains of the political process.

Reflected in the boorish glare of media incompetence, the political imbroglio seemed like some dark and foreboding Shakespearean tragedy in which judgement had fled to brutish beasts and men had lost their reason. Many of us hoped for the best but feared the worst.

The clamour surrounding the general election obscured a fundamental reality: India has changed and the vast majority of its people are either actually or by aspiration, middle class. Thanks to the government’s inclusive policies, the number of stakeholders in the India growth project has increased dramatically. The 2009 election outcome allows us to hope that a critical mass has been achieved to stabilise the ship of state.

One thing is clear: old divides of caste and religion were bridged as the Congress chalked up support across caste and religious lines. It’s now obvious that voters are tired of posturing and brinkmanship; they’ve had it with screaming and shouting over non-issues; they have rejected twisted propaganda that a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative is a possibility. The confused media purveyed this line, adding to the noise and distortions of the campaign. But voters showed maturity and a deep concern for the future to vote in the Congress-led coalition.

As such, voters have plumped for stability over chaos, substance over frivolity, wisdom over cunning, decency over crudity. In the same fell swoop, voters have put paid to the political future of L.K. Advani, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Jayalalitha, Arjun Singh and even Narendra Modi, whose low and abusive style turned people off everywhere and has drawn criticism from all quarters, including the BJP. These men and women were mainly responsible for the chaotic and confused politics of the two decades past.

Yet, perhaps the most significant outcome of the recent general election is that the people of India seem to have acknowledged that shallow and divisive politics is the prime reason behind the lack of development and the persistence of poverty across large swathes of the country. This new awareness is hugely welcome. Now there’s a real possibility that politics could become a facilitator of growth and equity rather than the corrupt and cynical power play it became in the last three decades of the 20th century.

The election result also has global consequences. To be sure, it enhances India’s standing in the world. In a rough neighbourhood pocked with the likes of Pakistan’s Taliban, Sri Lanka’s LTTE, Nepal’s Maoists and Bangladeshi Islamists, India is a haven of stability and progress. It boasts a rapidly expanding middle class that can become a leading engine of global economic growth. Investors understand that potential demand here could drive the global economy and keep it chugging for the next few decades.

Just think: despite fast-track growth in the telecom sector, penetration is barely 40 percent. Nearly 700 million Indians remain to be hooked on to the telecom grid. It’s the same with automobiles, power, transportation, construction, retail, civil aviation, agriculture and what have you. Is it any wonder the stock market took off into the stratosphere within minutes after it opened on the Monday after the election results were announced?

In the next two decades, India could leapfrog into the ranks of developed countries. The 2009 election outcome prophesies that the transformation has begun in earnest. It is wonderful that it was ushered in by the largest voter franchise in the world.

This Column Appeared in Education World, June 2009

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009