An election in India is one of those spectacles, like a pilgrimage or a marathon, in which size itself is meant to convey meaning. Watching all those people peacefully praying, running or voting — it restores your faith in humanity.
Voting has just ended in India, during which 415 million voters in megacities, small towns and tiny villages came together to elect a new government. Counting day — a holiday in India — was dramatic. By the afternoon of May 16, the alliance led by the Congress Party, won decisively. But when it was all over, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. The answers to India’s deepest problems seemed as far away as ever.
This isn’t cynicism. Democracy in India truly is a remarkable thing. Since the departure of the British from the subcontinent, India is the rare country in South Asia that has never been ruled by a dictator, a monarch or a general. It is a beckoning example of freedom and stability not just for the rest of the region but for any of the world’s poor, volatile countries.
But after nearly 62 years as an independent nation, India is still not getting enough real change from its exercise of democracy. Indira Gandhi ran on the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (Abolish Poverty) in 1971. Her Congress Party, led by her daughter-in-law Sonia and grandson Rahul, is promising the same thing 38 years later, though less poetically (“Inclusive Growth”). And yet in Rae Bareli and Amethi, the two constituencies that the Gandhi family has represented almost without interruption, literacy is below the national average, less than 40% of villages have electricity and most of the roads are unpaved. The Congress Party isn’t alone in its failures. In this election, every party, including the Hindu nationalist BJP, made the same vague promises about development and then spent the rest of their time scheming to make alliances for some future coalition government.
The upshot: political campaigns that seemed utterly unconcerned with substantive issues — of which there are many. How will India maneuver its foreign policy amid the tempestuous politics of its neighbors? How will it secure the safety of its citizens from extremists and insurgents? How will it push economic growth and liberalization forward without triggering massive unemployment or environmental calamity? PM Manmohan Singh, who begins a second term, may well have answers to those questions but he did not reveal them during the campaign. One columnist summed up the Indian vote as a “big election about small things.”
Yet before it can have a big election about big ideas, India must address problems so old as to be practically inconspicuous. Without universal education, India will not be able to find — even among its 1 billion people — enough skilled workers to sustain a thriving economy. Without improved roads, sewers and electricity, the companies who are betting on India’s growth will eventually look for better returns elsewhere. In the absence of better opportunities, Indians will continue to seek the security of government jobs for their children, making it that much more difficult to reform India’s bloated bureaucracy. Without public-sector reform, India won’t be able to build the modern intelligence, police and emergency services it needs to cope with 21st century terrorism.
The good news is that Indian voters are starting to raise their expectations. In rural West Bengal last fall, I met a man whose biggest complaint was that his village had no electricity. His children had no light to study under in the evenings, and he had to buy expensive diesel for a generator to charge his mobile phone. He wasn’t simply deprived; he was angry because he knew exactly what he was missing. Cell phones and cable television have brought not just political advertising to poor and rural areas but also new aspirations and a more acute awareness of how lives measure up to those in the rest of India.
If this year’s election is any indication, Indian voters are using that knowledge wisely. They weren’t swayed by the charismatic leaders and identity politics of rising regional parties, and they saw through the BJP’s attempts to repackage its message and its leader. But Congress shouldn’t get too comfortable. India’s voters make up a vast and fragmented constituency, but they are united in their power to choose who governs them.