Making the World Safe for Diversity

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.

There are ever-present dangers in the appeals to region and religion, caste and subcaste that have marked much of India's recent political mobilization. But a coalition Government dependent on the support of strong regional parties might relinquish more power to autonomous local authorities, instead of pretending, as so many third world countries do, that answers to every question can be found in a distant capital. This process could strengthen democracy rather than dilute it.

Might a weaker Indian Government arrest the country's slow but steady integration into the global economy? Ever since the British came to trade and stayed on to rule, Indian nationalists have been deeply suspicious of foreign business. "Self-reliance" was the watchword of the new nation, guaranteeing both political freedom and freedom from economic exploitation. The result was stagnation, regulated through a system of licenses, permits and quotas that promoted corruption and inefficiency but not growth. The Indian idea was that in a pluralist society it is more important to give everyone an even break, rather than to break even. So Indian democracy tried to pursue distributive justice while every group claimed a larger share of a shrinking pie.

The reforms of outgoing Prime Minister Narasimha Rao tried to change this, but they did not reach the ordinary peasant, and left the Government vulnerable to attacks for introducing Pepsi into villages that did not have clean drinking water. Neo-protectionists have declaimed that India should import only computer chips, not potato chips.

In recent months, a farmers' union ransacked a Cargill seed storehouse and trashed an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In a democracy, such outbursts can always be incited; though the courts have dealt with these specific cases, it is clear that economic reforms will only triumph when citizens develop a stake in their success. Reassuringly, Indian popular culture has proved resilient enough to compete successfully with MTV and McDonald's. India's strength has always lain in its ability to absorb foreign influences; it need not fear them.

At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian governments, India chose to be a multiparty democracy. India has always recognized that uniformity cannot be imposed on a land of such diversities. Inclusiveness must be the hallmark of any Indian government.

Change, whether for good or ill, comes slowly in India. But Indians know that democracy has given citizens of every imaginable caste, creed, culture and cause the chance to break free of their lot. The victors in the current elections include Phoolan Devi, a woman sold into marriage and gang-raped, an outlaw from the depths of Indian society. Today she sits in Parliament "representing the oppressed." There could be no more startling tribute to the Indian way.

Across the globe, there will always be a choice between two worlds: one of edicts and crusades, where orthodoxies rule and foreign heresies are ruthlessly suppressed behind exclusionist walls, and one in which the virtues of tolerance, dissent and co-operation are recognized and practiced. The 20th century has given us a world safe for democracy. It is time to make the world safe for diversity. India, which will begin the 21st century with a sixth of the human population, is indispensable to that effort.

Source: NY Times