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Sunday, May 9, 2004

INDIA'S RISING PATH

Democratic model for developing nations


NEW DELHI -- At a time when international terrorism has intensified debate on the potential role of democracy in moderating extremist trends, the world's largest-ever election in India is a reminder that democracy and freedom are not luxuries but central to the building of stable, pluralistic and prospering states.

In a world in which rapid economic growth has usually been set in motion through political autocracy, India presents itself as a commendable democratic model of modernization. Even as Indian voters have regularly thrown out politicians who became too big for their boots, India has quietly moved from being an emblem of poverty to being a brainy nation threatening to steal high-tech jobs from the West.

Despite the important challenges it faces, India has the satisfaction of having one of the world's fastest-growing economies. With 10.4 percent GDP growth in the last quarter of 2003, India -- the world's back office -- is proving more than a match for next-door China, the largest autocracy and the world's back factory for cheap consumer goods to the West. In fact, through superior corporate performance, a globally competitive service industry and a rising consumption base that diminishes reliance on exports as the growth engine, India's model assures steadier, sturdier development and higher returns for investors than the Asian "tigers."

India demonstrates that democratic politics and market economics blend nicely for developing nations and that they need not follow the model set by South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and some other states, which first achieved impressive economic growth under authoritarian rule before moving to democracy under pressure from their burgeoning middle classes.

Autocratic rule is addictive and, as exemplified by Singapore, a transferral to a full-fledged democracy can at times be difficult to achieve. Another lesson is that democracy takes roots through self-choice, not through imposition from outside in the way the United States is seeking to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democracy is also a great moderating influence. At a time when extremism and terrorism are becoming unfortunately linked with Islam, the world's second-largest Muslim population in India stands out as a welcome exception. The avenues for free expression and debate, and participation in the democratic processes, have helped foster a moderate Indian Muslim community that has provided no known recruits to al-Qaeda or other such terrorist organizations.

Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The terrorism-breeding swamps can never be fully drained as long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalized and democratized.

The U.S., for example, continues to prop up a military dictatorship in Pakistan despite the Pakistani military's long-standing ties with fundamentalism, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Without an accompanying effort to inculcate a secular and democratic ethos in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry, the global war on terror can hardly score any enduring success. Democracy also makes India's political future less uncertain in comparison to states that practice autocratic politics.

The question many ask is whether China will continue to grow economically and militarily in a linear fashion. That question arises from a basic contradiction in the two paths China is committed to pursue: political autocracy and market capitalism. If China manages to resolve that contradiction, it could emerge as a peer competitor to the U.S. The other possibility is that the paths of political autocracy and market capitalism are not reconcilable and that at some point they will collide, as they did in Indonesia, with negative consequences. If they do collide, the next question is whether China will be able to handle and manage the adverse fallout in a way that preserves its unity and rising strength. No one, however, is raising such questions about India.

Whether India will assume a global role commensurate with its size depends on a host of factors, including its leadership quality, strategic vision, continued pursuit of growth-boosting policies, control of corruption, spread of education, political stability and internal cohesion.

Economically, India appears set on a rising path, with an overly optimistic Goldman Sachs study forecasting that it will multiply its per-capita income by a whopping 35 times over the next 50 years by growing at 5 to 6 percent annually, with GDP likely to surpass Japan's by 2032.

As of now, India remains far from becoming a world power. India faces many challenges, one of which is to build power and influence regionally and in the larger arena to become a major player on the chessboard of international politics. Democracy remains India's greatest asset. Yet political corruption risks undermining the vitality of Indian democracy.

To sustain its pride as the world's largest democracy, India must demonstrate that fair elections bring not just new governments but also good, clean, national interest-focused governance. Having disproved that its inherited social values are a barrier to rapid economic growth, India can now show that those values do not promote a lack of accountability or a tolerance of corruption.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.


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