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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

India's stirring middle class


Special to The Japan Times

CANBERRA — India is on the move, with millions climbing into middle class status and a growing pool of super-rich billionaires. Yet it also has more poor, hungry and illiterate people than any other country in the world; access to safe water and sanitation remains a pipedream for most people and disease is endemic; power, transportation and communications infrastructure are risible; and life continues to be nasty, brutish and short for millions.

Welcome to the land of contrasts, where in the city that hosts the world's largest teeming slum (Dharavi, the setting for the hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire") a multi-billionaire industrialist is building the world's costliest, 27-story family mansion complete with three helipads and six levels of parking.

On May 14, results were announced from elections in four states and one territory. In four cases, incumbent governments were swept away, comprehensively in three and narrowly in one instance. There are two notable features about the results:

(1) In every instance defeated governments immediately and without protests about unfair process or outcome submitted their resignations and new ones will be duly sworn in. (We just have to think of the volatility across the Arab world and recall the presidential victory handed to George W. Bush by the U.S. Supreme Court to appreciate the enormity of India's achievement in instilling elections as a norm beyond questioning for choosing and removing governments.)

(2) In addition to Sonia Gandhi being the most powerful politician in the country, India will now have four women heads of state government responsible for the fate of 368 million people: 30 percent of the country's total population.

A few years ago, in a country that is 80 percent Hindu, the president was a Muslim bachelor, the prime minister and army chief were Sikhs, and the woman behind the throne was an Italian Roman Catholic widow. Diversity and pluralism have no better champion. This is a powerful tribute to the maturity of India's democratic and secular political system.

It also highlights the imperative for good governance: (1) to hold the country together through flexible and pragmatic power-sharing arrangements that promote unity in diversity; (2) to provide the political-legal infrastructure to backstop growth and prosperity that will absorb the world's largest new pool of labor entering the economy each year; and (3) to channel the world-beating creative and entrepreneurial aspirations of the newly empowered young consumer.

Two of the four state results are of national significance. In West Bengal in the east, a communist party in power for 34 years oversaw a stagnation with declining shares of manufacture, capital and intellect flight, and falling educational and health standards and services.

In Tamil Nadu in the south, the head of the state government had installed his family members in the Cabinet, both in the state and in New Delhi, as a junior coalition in the Singh government. In effect Tamil Nadu had become a family profit enterprise. The voters have thrown both sets of rascals out.

As this suggests, contradicting irrational international exuberance, India suffers from some glaring governance deficits. Almost a quarter of the members of parliament face a variety of criminal charges. According to Transparency International, the World Bank and the United Nations, India fares poorly on global corruption, ease of doing business and human development rankings, respectively.

There is a lesson here: market-friendly policies can deliver pro-poor results. And punishing the corrupt would help to attract the necessary investment capital and also maximise the return on it.

Part of the explanation for these pathologies is that the rule of law is more notional than real in India. Australian firms still owed money for work done in the great Commonwealth Games scam have discovered this to their cost. In India law is owned by the politically powerful followed by the economically wealthy.

Justice has not yet been seen to be done with respect to the perpetrators of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 or the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. In both cases, powerful politicians incited the riots that killed up to 3,000 Sikhs and 2,000 Muslims while the police stood by passively. Indian Muslims and Sikhs worldwide are yet to reach emotional closure on those traumatic events.

Now some former high-ranking Congress Party officials do face the prospect of trials for the killings of the Sikhs in 1984 and the Bharatiya Janata Party head of the Gujarat government in 2002 is in the crosshairs of a Supreme Court ordered special investigation.

In the meantime, there have been other high-profile trials and even murder convictions of highly connected individuals, something that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. And some Cabinet ministers are in prison awaiting trial for corruption. There are three explanations for the welcome signs of reform in India's governance:

• The much exaggerated middle class may finally be consolidating as a political force to be reckoned with, especially in the urban centers. Educated and informed, the expanding middle class is starting to assert itself politically by exploiting the citizen's levers in a free society, including the judiciary and a vigorously competitive electronic and print media.

• Rising prosperity of the growing middle class has given many the financial means to travel abroad and evaluate domestic governance against international standards. The more they experience public service, infrastructure and governance in Southeast Asia, Japan and the West, the less they will settle for inferior standards back home.

• Civil society — lawyers, human rights advocates, social activists — has maintained the demand for criminal accountability through the press, the political process and the justice system. In an increasingly networked world, they have often joined forces with international counterparts to publicize, harass and otherwise exert pressure for a settling of accounts in India's notoriously slow courts.

India has an almost unmatched record of looking progress and prosperity directly in the face and resolutely turning its back to walk off in the opposite direction. But for the first time, recent developments suggest that winds of change may be blowing apart the unholy nexus of politics, big money and crime.

Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations at Australian National University, and adjunct professor in the Institute of Ethics, Law and Governance at Griffith University


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