Democracy is a process, not an event. But the democratic event of the year so far -- the election, by nearly 60 percent of 590 million eligible voters, of a new Government for India -- was hailed for its reaffirmation of a process. For the 11th time nationally, the Indian people chose their representatives, casting their ballots in more than 800,000 polling places for 14,700 candidates belonging to 522 political parties in an election universally considered free, fair, honest -- and dull.
The prevailing sound bite was that it was an "issueless election." In fact, these elections weren't just a large-scale vindication of democracy, but a referendum on the most important debates facing the developing world. Are strong central governments needed to suppress the divisive tendencies of language, tribe and region? Is a secular society, such as the one established in India's constitution, essential, or should national religious identities prevail? Should third world countries join the trend toward globalization, or seek refuge in the traditional mantra of self-sufficiency?
The minority Government led by a Hindu nationalist party that was sworn in this week has promised continuity amid change. Its appointment confirms the belief that India is in for an era of coalition government. But the elections reminded us that there are those who wish India to become a Hindu Rashtra, a land of and for the Hindu majority. There are those who wish to raise the protectionist barriers against foreign investment that have slowly begun to come down and those who believe that a firm hand at the helm would be preferable to the inefficiencies of democracy.
The challenge for the new leaders -- and for those who might join or replace them -- will be to sustain an India open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the power or the products of the outside world.
"Hindu fundamentalism" ought to be a contradiction in terms, because the Hindu faith is one devoid of fundamentals: no organized church, no compulsory beliefs or rites of worship, no single sacred book. Yet the assertion of a Hindu identity is a reaction to the assertion of other identities, and since religious faith is widespread and pervasive, the contempt of the votaries of Hindutva for the elites who profess "secularism" is understandable. But true secularism in a country like India does not mean irreligiousness; rather, it lies in a tradition of allowing all faiths to flourish, with none privileged by the state.