Manmohan Singh has become the first Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi to return to power after completing a full term. He delivered the best economic performance since independence, bringing both economic growth and poverty reduction. The Indian economy is one and a half times as large as when he became Prime Minister, and society has been transformed by the boom. To the shock of most observers, the voters responded accordingly.
There is a clear pattern of electoral reward to better governance at both the national and state levels. The standard of competition has risen, and caste politics and Left politics have been punished. Caste politics arose as a corrective to hegemonic politics, where privileged castes and classes in electoral coalitions cornered benefits and offered only crumbs to the others coalition members. Manmohan Singh presided over an era of increased market-driven employment growth as well as government employment guarantees in villages. He dramatically improved tax collection and thus was able to finance infrastructure projects and social welfare schemes. The Left and caste-based parties offered an implicitly or explicitly pessimistic vision of economic development, and the experience of the last five years disproved them.
The BJP national leadership, on the other hand, has indulged itself over the last five years. In the late 1980s, L.K. Advani intensified political competition by building a new sociopolitical coalition with the politics of hard Hindutva. Since 2004, as BJP supporters drained away, Advani has confined himself to minor political scams, such as claiming the ability to negotiate a far better nuclear deal and conjuring an El Dorado of black money in Swiss banks. Sushma Swaraj may be a more promising and creative leader for the party.
The election revealed new social tendencies. The urban middle class, enlarged and emboldened by the economic boom, asserted itself by giving all seats in Delhi and Mumbai to Congress. This class had been considered the natural constituency of Hindutva, but the positive future revealed by the economic boom revived the credibility of secularism. In fact, Muslim voters moved back toward Congress. This marks the reversal of a trend toward Muslim identity politics that began in the 1970s. Events inside and outside India revealed the dark future that religious identity politics and fundamentalism held in store. Rural society has been brought into the national dialogue through the spread of television and cell phones and has grasped the possibility of using their vote to improve governance rather than to assert identity against the specter of local oppression. The results in Bihar, although against the UPA, are the most heartwarming in this respect.
Nitish Kumar has brought a turnaround to the state that few would have believed possible.In the next five years India will, of course, face radically different global circumstances from those of the last five.
Merchandise exports are crashing and are not likely to enjoy high growth for years to come. Software exports have avoided decline so far and may grow even in a depressed global economy, since the restructuring of developed economies will require more software than the United States and other rich countries can possibly produce themselves. During the months of the global economic crisis, India has maintained some growth by building up infrastructure, agriculture, and small towns. Much more can be done in that vein. The depressed global economy will keep the price of oil and other imports down, so fewer exports are required for a given physical quantity of imports. In short, a domestically-oriented growth strategy should be viable.
Such a growth strategy will require further capitalist reforms, as well as the more effective discharge of the state’s social responsibility. Incremental steps have been taken to introduce contract labor in industry, but more needs to be done to spur employment. Because companies have the option of freely dismissing a contract worker at the end of the contract term, they are far more willing to hire such workers. The prevailing labor laws in factories make it very difficult to dismiss a worker. Critics have long argued that such insecure employment is degrading and less valuable. However, in the software industry, all employment is insecure.
The dignity of workers in insecure employment lies in their ability to find another job. India has succeeded in the last few years at having more than 90 percent of children from ages six to 14 attend school. The quality of public education remains low, mainly due to dereliction by teachers. When village panchayats hire teachers on contract, they tend to work harder. Such hiring is already proceeding apace and must speed up. Several other state responsibilities would be discharged better if money and authority were shifted down to the level of villages and municipalities.
Internationally, Manmohan Singh faces new challenges; India’s four fundamental relationships are with the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan. While relations with Obama’s America have been low profile, they have been cooperative in substance. India can help the United States build an Afghan state that can defend itself, so that American soldiers can return home. India needs to buy more than just arms from Russia, especially as Russia suffers the decline of oil and gas prices. While China has sought to contain India’s rise, it has done so with restraint. Continued strengthening of India’s economy and military will bring China to reconsider its approach. As more equal partners, the two can gain much from each other.
Pakistan’s Army, however, still needs the drama of at least latent hostility with India to keep its privileges—Taliban or no Taliban. India needs to wait it out. Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are undergoing wrenching transformations, complicating their relations with India. The restrained but concerned approach must continue.
|Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.|