April 26, 2004
VANCOUVER - India's 660 million voters go to the polls over the next three weeks in an election likely to have a major impact on Asia's near-term future.
In spite of sporadic violence and local voting irregularities, India's multi-stage national parliamentary election will probably run more smoothly than America's colossally embarrassing 2000 electoral fiasco. India's feisty press puts America's too-tame media to shame.
The ruling coalition led Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) appears almost certain to be returned to power for five more years.
India's 1.1 billion people are feeling positive. The economy is booming, with over 8% growth, inflation is relatively low, harvests are good, and India, now much in fashion, is finally earning the respect it has long sought.
A decade ago, the Indian government showed me the then infant computer industry it was struggling to establish in Bangalore. India's, as everyone now knows, is now a world leader in information technology and a major provider of outsourcing, a source of great national pride.
Americans, convinced India offers a business gold rush, are flocking to Delhi and Mumbai(Bombay). Many will be disappointed. India's economy, though zesty, is only the size of Holland's. Per capita income for 1.1 billion Indians remains low, at US $486, compared to neighbor Pakistan's $462, and rival China's $970.
The BJP deserves credit for India's current boom. The conservative Hindu nationalist party has been sweeping away the socialist cobwebs of over-regulation, protectionism, and central planning spun by previous Congress-Party governments, whose post-independence leaders were schooled in the traditions of British socialism. It would be hard to find a worse economic model.
The BJP also managed so far to curb its wilder impulses. At the party's core, is the militant RSS, a politburo advocating `Hindutva' - Hindu fundamentalism and religious purification of Mother India. This shadowy movement's founders, like those of Lebanon's Christian Phalange party, China's Kumintang, and Israel's Irgun-Herut-Likud party, were deeply influenced by 1930's fascism.
Thanks to the calming influence of coalition politics, and the careful, cautious leadership of PM Vajpayee, BJP Hindu militants, who called for war on Pakistan, a more muscular foreign policy, and urged Delhi to brandish its arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons, were restrained.
However, the leading Hindu firebrand and RSS stalwart, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, waits in the wings to succeed Vajpayee, who is ailing. Advani led Hindu mobs that destroyed a Muslim mosque in 1992, an incendiary act that nearly touched off a Hindu-Muslim bloodbath across India. Hopefully, Advani will temper his extremer impulses when he takes over from Vajpayee.
India's traditional ruling party, Congress, is in a funk and heading towards political irrelevance unless it can find new, strong leadership. Sonia Gandhi, its current leader, has been a major disappointment. She is now grooming her son and daughter for leadership roles.
India, one of the world's great democracies, deserves better than dynastic leaders - as does the United States. The Gandhis need retire from Congress and make way for new blood.
A re-elected BJP will face a key decision. Either continue the rapid push to develop conventional and nuclear arsenals; continue confronting Pakistan; and competing militarily with China, as BJP militants urge.
Or, continue Vajyapee's efforts to settle the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, which nearly sparked nuclear war twice and has cost the two impoverished nations $35 billion. Ending this dangerous confrontation would add 6% to the growth rate of both impoverished nations. Following a path of militant Hindu nationalism would be a disaster for multi-ethnic India and its neighbors.
India is already a regional super-power and on the way to becoming a world superpower. Delhi has as much right to a nuclear arsenal as the US, but it does not need the hugely expensive, offensive long-range ballistic missiles, more nuclear weapons, nuclear subs and aircraft carriers it has ordered while millions still go hungry.
India's economy could produce powerful, long-term growth, eventually rivaling China's. Once Kashmir is resolved fairly and relations normalized with Pakistan, India should be granted a seat on the UN Security Council.
But more important and urgent than super-power status, India needs to wage war on poverty and its malevolent caste system, twin scourges affecting nearly half her people. These, not `Hindutva,' should be the BJP's real challenge and priority.