India’s problem is not politics

Summary: India’s elections aroused fears about its political viability but elicited yawns about its economic health. The reality of India’s prospects is just the opposite. Conventional wisdom aside, the main threat India faces is economic. Slower growth and a stalled program of economic reforms could endanger India’s stability. Its politics, by contrast, exhibit an admirable ability to bring extremists, including the Hindu nationalists of the newly preeminent Bharatiya Janata Party, closer to the center. India’s democracy is the glue that keeps the country together; its economy, if not reformed, could cause dangerous strains.
Marshall M. Bouton is Executive Vice President of the Asia Society.

India’s recent parliamentary elections aroused fears about its political viability, but not about its economy. The fractured verdict — 40 parties won at least one seat, and no party won more than a third of the seats — created a hung parliament incapable of ending the political turmoil at India’s center. While Sonia Gandhi stemmed the Congress Party’s losses by assuming its leadership, the party that once provided India’s stability continued its sclerotic decline. At the same time, the strong showing by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was asked to form the new government, stirred fears that India would abandon its commitment to secularism in public life, setting the stage for sharper Hindu-Muslim conflict, political unrest, and perhaps heightened tension with Pakistan.

Economic issues, in contrast, stirred little alarm. They played practically no role in the elections, despite the current slump in India’s economy and the meltdown in East Asia. Instead, most observers assumed that continued economic reforms, even at a slow pace, would keep India moving forward on the higher GDP growth path of six to seven percent attained in recent years.

The reality of India’s prospects is just the opposite of these perceptions. The main threat to India’s future is not political but economic. India’s political system has for several years been in transition from Congress Party dominance to a more splintered picture in which regional and caste-based parties control most states, alongside a still unclear political pattern at the center. But neither the kaleidoscope of parties nor frequent changes of government nor the rise of the BJP as the preeminent national party should be mistaken for threats to India’s underlying stability or its very unity. Rather, they are integral to the latest stage — a messy one, to be sure — of a social and political transformation made possible by democracy itself.


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