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India and the U.S. — A Tale of Two Democracies

In what ways did India’s recent elections present a serious test to U.S. voters?

November 4, 2004

In what ways did India's recent elections present a serious test to U.S. voters?

Despite all of India’s impressive economic gains in recent years, the country supposedly still is a male chauvinistic, unruly, backward place, divided every which way.

Indians, for their part, would argue with good reason that no other country has a more complex domestic environment than theirs.

India's population exceeds one billion people. It has 18 official languages and 200 other languages — as well as countless races, ethnicities, religions, customs, cultures and political ideologies.

On top of that, India's democracy is built on thousands of years of history, with the requisite wars and conflicts. All along, it has contended with the extremes of poverty and wealth — and all the other obstacles of underdevelopment.

And yet, no other post-colonial country can match India's record of democracy. And unlike many countries in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere in Asia, India has managed to practice its version of democracy for all but two of its 57 years of independence from Britain.

The price of India's democracy is intense political confrontation, violent conflicts, terrorism, assassinations, religious fanaticism and massacres, as well as localized nationalism.

Political and religious extremists have waxed and waned, but none gained national significance until the National Volunteers Association (RSS), a far-right Hindu extremist group, set up a political party, the Indian People's Party (BJP) — and formed a coalition government in 1998.

In power, the religious right had to moderate its strident Hindutva (Hinduness) doctrine — but individual extremists and local politicians faced no real constraints. What helped things along was the impressive performance of the Indian economy under the BJP, which allowed the Hindu extremists to advance their political agenda.

And yet, the BJP's leaders mistook the growth rate of the economy for a real indicator of the alleviation of poverty — and sought to extend their political rule by calling an early election.

Their great self-confidence blinded them to the reality that India's poor still felt left behind. Thus, when the time came in May 2004 to be heard at the ballot box, the voting poor — rather than falling for the BJP's uplifting rhetoric — surprisingly opted for the opposition Congress Party.

In short, they chose in favor of the tradition of tolerance and secularism preached by Mahatma Gandhi — and practiced by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They voted for the Congress Party led by Italian-born Sonja Gandhi, a Christian. She in turn chose a member of the Sikh minority as prime minister for the majority Hindu country.

But how did the results of the presidential election in the United States differ from those in India?

First of all, Indian voters strongly rejected the party in power with its quasi-religious nationalism in favor of the party that advocated religious tolerance. India's poor evidently have misgivings about using religion as a divisive tool in a multi-ethnic society.

Compare that to the outcome of the U.S. election campaign. As was the case with India's then-Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy, Lal Krishan Advani, George W. Bush time and again engaged in various forms of "religionizing" politics.

Whether through overt references to the large role his faith plays in his decision-making and his leadership in the war on terror or through socially conservative policy proposals that are meant to fire up his base of religious, conservative voters, religion was very much at the center of Mr. Bush's campaign.

And the American people reaffirmed this concept — unlike the presumably backward Indians.

Even more tantalizingly, India's poor — quite surprisingly to most pollsters — did not fall for the luring rhetoric of the BJP that the economy was in great shape and that they should therefore stay the course with the BJP.

They felt that their basic needs — such as access to water and better rural infrastructure — had not been addressed sufficiently by the incumbent government.

Significantly, many reports have shown that India's poorest citizens turned out in unexpected numbers, thus swinging the election in the Congress Party's favor by clear-handedly voting their own economic interest.

What is access to water in India is access to health care in the United States. But only the Indians voted on their primary need and interest. Indications are that America's poor did not express their sentiments in a similar fashion. For example, only 38% of Americans living in families with incomes under $10,000 voted in the 2000 presidential election.

This low turnout by poor Americans stands in stark contrast to the surge of poor Indians to the polling stations — especially in underdeveloped rural areas.

However, turnout by poor voters was just one test to see which nation has a more mature democracy and broad-based electorate.

Another yardstick to determine which country has a more mature democracy is whether the U.S. elections were once again marred by "hanging chads" and controversial Supreme Court decisions.

That apparently was not the case in the 2004 U.S. elections. But that it was an acute worry before the election stands in stark contrast to India, where — even though the majority of voters who had never seen a computer, let alone used one — an all-electronic election was conducted without any "Florida-style" fiascos.

Despite the higher-than-usual turnout and relatively smooth election process, Americans still have their work cut out living up to the example set by their Indian counterparts. For most observers, India has come away with the prize for displaying a democratic vibrancy and maturity that more highly developed countries are beginning to lack.

But then again, that is good news in the global scheme of things — where the time has come for the highly industrialized countries of the "West" to give up the notion of their naturally born superiority.

In the brave new world, there is not a priori telling of who's coming out on top on what issue. While this is confusing during the time of transition, the world will be a richer place for it.