Suhael Momin: A surprise on the Subcontinent

BY SUHAEL MOMIN: AN ALTERNATIVE SPIN

Published May 23, 2004

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee called for national elections earlier this year, he did so
fully expecting that his Bharatiya Janata Party would be the sole
beneficiary. After all, under BJP tenure, India emerged as a
high-tech powerhouse, achieved 8.6 percent annual GDP growth and
took serious steps in easing cross-border tensions with Pakistan.
Thus, it came as a big shock when, last week, Indian voters did not
simply deny the BJP any significant gains — they dealt the
party a major defeat. In a result that no political pundit could
have predicted, the previously waning Congress Party was catapulted
to power.

Suhael Momin

Of course, the Congress Party represents India’s greatest
political dynasty. Its current leader, Sonia Gandhi, is the widow
of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of India’s first
female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, herself the daughter of
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In recent
years, however, the Party found itself sidelined — after
Vajpayee’s election in 1998, and the emergence of a BJP-led
coalition, the Congress was reduced to providing semi-constructive
criticism from the opposition bench.

Without a doubt, last week’s rejection of the BJP came as
a major shock. However, the election has deeper significance: It
demonstrates a remarkable degree of maturity on the part of the
Indian electorate. For one, Gandhi, the latest heir of Nehru
dynasty, is not ethnically Indian. Indeed, despite her Italian
heritage, India’s citizenry elected Gandhi to the highest
position in the nation. Furthermore, when Gandhi declined the top
position, nominating instead prospective finance minister Manmohan
Singh, a Sikh, the public was widely indifferent about his
religion.

When President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam swore in Singh as
India’s 13th Prime Minister on May 22, he became the first
Sikh to ever hold that position. Merely 20 years ago, nobody could
have foreseen that a Sikh would hold India’s top job. In
1984, Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi after she ordered
Operation Blue Star, an assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar,
the holiest Sikh shrine, in an effort to quell a militant Sikh
separatist movement. Today, Singh’s religion is effectively a
non-issue. In the greater scheme, the Indian electorate endorsed
Sonia Gandhi at the polls — her origin was a non-issue. The
BJP, which tried to make Gandhi’s Italian birth and imperfect
grasp of the Hindi language an issue, was thrown out of power.
Religion and ethnicity, two politicized issues that tore savagely
at India’s social fabric during the 1980s and ’90s,
were rendered moot. Ironically, an election held to help the Hindu
nationalist BJP resulted in religious minorities holding both of
India’s top positions.

The extraordinary elevation of Singh, architect of India’s
economic liberalization, to India’s highest position holds
great promise. In many ways, India’s economic advancement can
be attributed to the daring reforms Singh undertook during his
tenure as finance minister for Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. When
Singh inherited the position in 1991, India had barely $1 billion
in foreign exchange reserves; the reserves now stand at almost $120
billion. In 1991, the fiscal deficit was a whopping 8.5 percent of
Indian GDP, today it is half that. Twenty years ago, there were
three car manufacturers in India. Now, dozens of companies, ranging
from Honda to Daimler-Chrysler, compete freely. Singh’s
reforms opened India’s doors to foreign investment,
simplified the tax code, removed oppressive government controls on
production and ended many monopolies propped up by restrictive
laws. With Singh at the helm, India’s economic future seems
bright.

Last week’s election, therefore, was phenomenal in every
sense. The BJP, and its Hindu nationalist rhetoric, was dealt a
sound defeat. The Indian electorate cast aside concerns about Sonia
Gandhi’s foreign origin; economic issues, not ethnicity,
drove the election. Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, was confirmed and
inaugurated with no difficulty. Most importantly, even though
Congress campaigned on flaws in the BJP’s pro-liberalization
economic policies, Singh has no plan to reverse the reformation he
himself set into motion. With any luck, this election is a vanguard
sign, an indication that India is moving beyond ethnic politics and
accelerating on its journey toward prosperity.

Momin can be reached at "mailto:smomin@umich.edu">smomin@umich.edu.