Sree's Stories

World's Largest Democracy Goes to the Polls

Newsday / Student Briefing Page
Wednesday, May 10, 1996

By Sreenath Sreenivasan

When most Americans think of Asia, they usually think of China, Japan, the
Koreas, perhaps Vietnam. But they overlook a rather important country. A
country that is home to nearly a billion people, is the world's largest
democracy and has a 5,000-year-old
civilization. A country that has nuclear-weapon capabilities and one of
the largest and most powerful military forces in the world. A country that
has major business ties to the United States and has a fast-growing
economy. The country is India, and it has, over the past week,
demonstrated why Americans should pay closer attention to it.

This juggernaut (a word derived from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language)
of a nation conducted elections and reaffirmed its commitment to
democracy. Unlike most developing countries where dictatorships and
military regimes are the norm, India has, over
the last 50 years, time and again seen the reins of power pass smoothly
and peacefully from one government to another. And in these, the 11th set
of elections in its parliamentary form of government, the will of the
people has once again been accepted.

The moderate Congress party--which has ruled for almost all the years since
India became independent from England in 1947--was soundly defeated in the
least clear-cut results the country has ever seen. The prime minister and
leader of the Congress, P.V. Na rasimha Rao, resigned over the weekend,
setting in motion a search for a new head of government among the
victorious parties. As we went to press, the winner was not clear, but it
was obvious no party could rule on its own and would need support to form
a coalition government. The field had narrowed to two extremes: the BJP, a
conservative, right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and the National
Front-Left Front, a coalition of moderate and socialist parties whose main
interest is keeping the BJP out of powe r.

The are several reasons the U.S. is not as close to India as it is, say,
to Japan. * THE COLD WAR: India chose to side with the former Soviet Union
and established military and business links with Moscow, much to the
displeasure of Washington. * A CLOSED ECONOMY: India opted for a planned
socialist economy with little Western investment. * RELATIVE LACK OF
HISTORICAL TIES: Thanks to wars and trade, U.S. involvement with Japan and
South Korea has been much more direct. * MEDIA COVERAGE: Due to financial
and other constraints, India was rarely covered except in times of natural
disasters and violence.

Things began to change to in 1991, after the last election. Since coming
to power, Rao and his finance minister (the equivalent of a US Secretary
of the Treasury) Manmohan Singh implemented widespread economic reforms
that opened up the country to foreign
investment, and U.S. companies rushed in. With a middle class of
approximately 250 million people, India offers fresh opportunities for
companies to find profits. Now many American products¾ everything from
Pepsi and Coca-Cola to IBM computers and Motorola cellular
phones¾dominate the market. And that has increased media interest in the
country. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became easier for India
and the U.S. to come closer to each other.

What's next for India? Despite a growing economy, there are still tens of
millions of Indians who live in abject poverty with little access to clean
water, electricity, and other modern facilities. It is clear that whoever
rules India in the years ahead must do much more to alleviate the hunger
and the desperation of so many of its citizens. India and its neighbor,
Pakistan, have fought two wars and are engaged in an arms race that could
one day see nuclear weapons thrown into the fray. The U.S. government
will continue to keep a close eye on the region and hope the fighting days
are in the past.

Sreenath Sreenivasan is an assistant professor at the Columbia University
Graduate School of Journalism and a freelance writer.