The Day of New London (Conn.), May 30, 2104
There was an election recently. In terms of the number of people voting, approximately 536 million, it was the largest in human history. Americans are not paying much attention. They should. The results of this election will affect the world.
The people of India selected Narendra Modi to become their next prime minister by putting his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) solidly in charge of the nation's policy-setting lower house of Parliament. It is a major shift in leadership and direction for a nation that has been resistant to political change.
Why should Americans care? For one thing, with 1.24 billion people, India has 17 percent of the world's population, second only to China and certain to pass it, given birth rates. It is a nuclear power and shares a border and an uneasy relationship with its historic adversary, Pakistan, also nuclear armed.
In terms of global politics, a stable and economically expanding India can serve as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China in the Asian sphere. And India has the potential to be a massive target for U.S. manufacturing and technology exports, particularly if the reform-minded prime minister-elect sets policies that can get India's economic growth rate, stuck at 4 percent to 5 percent annually, moving again.
In selecting the BJP, the people of India turned from the long supremacy of the Congress Party, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family, dating back to India's break from Great Britain. It takes a galvanizing figure to break such a stranglehold on power, particularly in India, where widespread corruption has made many in power vested in the status quo. Modi proved to be such a figure. The Economist magazine calls him the most powerful personality to become prime minister since Indira Gandhi, assassinated in 1984.
As chief minister of the state of Gujarat in northwestern India, home to 60 million people, Modi won plaudits for pursuing policies that cut down on favoritism, encouraged private investment, reduced government bureaucracy and provided a reliable electric grid. As a result, the state's economy consistently outpaced that of the nation.
Many of those stuck in India's caste system and yearning for the chance to advance were energized by Modi's own story, the son of a tea seller who rose to a position of great power and influence. There is no place on Earth where the glorious audacity of the one-person, one-vote approach to governance is more apparent than India, where the votes of unschooled villagers without toilets carry the same weight as mansion-dwelling millionaire moguls in Delhi.
Yet the challenges facing Modi and the BJP are as enormous as the nation he and it will govern. The banks are so clogged with bad debts they require a U.S.-scale bailout. The Congress Party fought poverty with an ever-expanding welfare system. India needs jobs and opportunities for self-advancement, but reforming a system that has left millions accustomed to handouts will not be easy.
India's tax system is arcane and insufficient to support government spending (sound familiar?). The electric system is a mess, and much of the electricity used is stolen. Paying off government officials is an accepted way of doing business.
But through their vote the people of India showed an eagerness for change, which is cause for hopefulness.
There is a cautionary note as well, however. Though his support is now broad, Modi is a product of India's Hindu nationalist movement. The prime minister-elect has vowed to be the leader of all India's people, but the 15 percent of the population who are Muslim have reason for unease. Some fear a Hindu nationalist in power also increases the potential for a flare up with Muslim Pakistan.
In the best case, Modi's focus as leader will be the same as his focus as a campaigner -- emphasizing economic reform. The world will be watching.