India's Coming-Out Party

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, June 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

India's Coming-Out Party


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria; Zakaria delivered the commencement address at Brown University last weekend.

The country puts aside its divisions.

One can date precisely China's debut as a great power. It was the evening of Aug. 8, 2008--the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The event perfectly symbolized China's rise, a spectacular and expensive feat of mass organization, directed by the country's highly competent government. We might look back a few years from now and date India's coming-out party to May 18, 2009, the day its most recent election results were announced. They are also a fitting symbol--in this case of India's unique strengths, which are defined not by state power but people power, with all the messiness and chaos that implies. With 420 million people voting, the recent polls were the biggest exercise of democracy in history.

But the global significance of the election--and the reason it might usher in a new age for India on the world stage--was not the fact of it, but the results. Over the past two decades, India has been consumed by its internal divisions: of caste, ethnicity and religion. This has made it difficult for the government in New Delhi to mobilize national power to any purposeful end in global affairs. A decentralized and divided polity has punched well below its weight internationally. That's bad for India and bad for the world. This could all change now. For the first time in three decades, a single party--the Indian National Congress-- was given a clear and broad mandate.

The Indian electorate is one of the world's poorest and least educated, and yet it voted with remarkable intelligence. The ruling Congress party was rewarded for economic growth. Contrary to the hopes of India's many left-wing pundits, people support the move toward a more open (and thus productive) economy. One can see this in the fact that Congress didn't win everywhere. Regional governments that had also pursued development (in Orissa and Bihar) were rewarded as well. The parties that stumbled badly were those that based their appeal on fear, hatred and identity politics--the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and smaller caste-based groups.

In recent years democracy around the world seemed to have fallen prey to two ills. First, populism seemed to trump economic reform. Second, in the age of terrorism, fear became an easy way to mobilize political support. (These problems have affected democracies in rich countries like America just as much as poor ones.) The Indian results contradict both notions. The Congress party has been reasonably reform-minded economically and highly responsible on issues of terrorism and tolerance. It chose to show restraint after the recent Mumbai terror attacks and was vilified by the opposition as weak. …

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