One More Messy Election in a Faraway Country

JONATHAN POWER

April 12, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LUND, SWEDEN — Lund, Sweden.-- Imagine if all Europe, east and west, or all North America, or Africa, voted in a unified general election.

Observers and pundits would have to tolerate a little confusion and ambiguity, not to mention horse-trading. Regional and religious parties would raise impossible conditions: In the European parliament the Ossetians, let's say, turning the tables on a pre-election pact, balk at joining a liberal coalition with the German Greens, suddenly remembering, as they are courted by the Christian Democrats with the offer of a cabinet post or two, that the Greens had strongly supported some years before the attempted secession of Georgia.

Or, in the newly elected North American parliament, imagine the Quebec and Mexican socialists engaging in a bitter internecine quarrel with the recently-resuscitated Wisconsin Progressives over the latter's proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion, ending up denying the left a chance to give the Democrats a working majority.

This is, transferred to local issues, how the infighting goes in the world's largest democracy, India, with its 850 million people, particularly before a general election, one of which is set for next month.

Judging by the amount of news space we give India, the complexities of democracy on the scale of a country with three major religions and innumerable languages just passes us by.

Of course, if India chose to go to war with Pakistan, Peter Arnett and 900 lesser journalists would be there in no time. Attaining democracy is newsworthy; losing it, especially by war or revolution, more so; sustaining it over the long haul not at all.

India's election will probably determine whether it becomes an overt military nuclear power or not -- and whether it can cap the irrational emotions that bedevil its relationship with Pakistan and thus avert bringing to our television screens the first-ever all-out nuclear war fought between two nuclear powers.

The election will also determine India remains a secular state, with its remarkable tradition of religious tolerance, or continues to slide toward Hindu fundamentalism in reaction to the too-rapid changes imposed by urbanization and indus- trialization, fast communications and political instability.

We shouldn't underestimate the sophistication of the Indian electorate. Undereducated and poverty-stricken much of it is, yet it surprised Indira Gandhi by voting her out of office after she'd alienated the people with her state of emergency and a mass male-sterilization campaign. The demise at the polls of her son, Rajiv, a year and a half ago, was in large part because he mistakenly assumed that Indian peasants were only interested in matters affecting their daily life. He did not perceive that the Bofors scandal, involving bribes to high Indian officials engaged in a large-scale arms purchase from a Swedish arms manufacturer, could become such a popular issue.

It is equally dangerous for Indian politicians to underestimate the stake the sizable Indian middle class has in political stability, secularism and open doors to the outside world. India's economic advance in the last decade has been so successful that there are today a good 40 million Indians who enjoy a standard of living comparable to their counterparts in the advanced industrialized countries, and another 60 million on the threshold of such a life. This gives them a voice equal to the combined middle classes of Britain, France and Germany.

The selection of India's fourth prime minister in 18 months may propel India into permanent political instability, not because of the lack of wisdom of its people, but because of the crass egotism and self-interested maneuvering of its politicians.

Perhaps if outsiders took Indian politics more seriously the Indian actors would move around their own stage with a little more dignity, grace and responsibility. (How often do the practicing democrats of other countries visit the sub-continent? Answer: hardly at all, and far less often than they visit China.)

Indian democracy is in peril. Those who believe in it, inside and out, must tell the politicians to stop playing around with the wonderful working theater of free political choice their predecessors so laboriously created.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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