India's election, which begins this week and rolls through May 16, will be the largest peacetime exercise in human history. It will feature 815 million voters, including 100 million new ones. It will boast 300 million more voters than in the next three biggest democracies -- America, Indonesia, and Brazil -- combined. And there will be decisive contests in single states like Uttar Pradesh, alone home to as many people as Germany, France, and Britain put together.
As I argue over in the Nikkei Asian Review, the election may also prove a turning point in India's political history -- one in which a new "politics of aspiration," to use the journalist Shekhar Gupta's phrase, replaces the old "politics of grievance" that was about redistributing the economic pie rather than growing it. The emergent urban, youthful, middle class India -- the India of 900 million mobile connections -- will displace the old rural peasantry as the decisive demographic. Restoring economic vigor through good governance and decisive reform will be the clear mandate of the electoral victor. Polling shows Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set to win decisively.
For the region and the world, India's revitalization under a new leader would have consequences far beyond its borders. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is investing heavily in India as a geopolitical counterweight to China -- and an alternative market for Japanese companies increasingly rattled by China's authoritarian nationalism. Southeast Asian states meanwhile want a strong India as a player in regional security alongside the United States, China, and Japan. Beijing knows it cannot speak for Asia when a neighboring civilization-state of 1.3 billion people contests its leadership. And any true U.S. "pivot" to Asia must be anchored by robust partnerships with the predominant powers of the Indo-Pacific littoral -- India and Japan. In short, there is more at stake for Indian voters in the upcoming elections than their own domestic politics.
Beyond security, the world economy would unquestionably benefit from the return of India, and its billion-plus consumers, as an engine of global growth. GDP expansion has plummeted from nearly 10 percent in the late 2000s; the country has suffered eight straight quarters of growth under 5 percent as a result of the ruling Congress Party's cautious approach to reform.
Voters are no longer having it. As the Financial Times puts it:
Indians are no longer placated by Congress's brand of dynastic benevolence -- rural make-work schemes, handouts, and food subsidies. Because of uncontrollable corruption, much of that largesse does not reach them anyway. Instead, they want jobs, roads, teachers, justice, and a chance to make themselves a better life. Congress, kept in power by the fading allure of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for all but 13 years since independence, is no longer trusted to meet these aspirations.
While the BJP's approach to liberalization has flaws -- its campaign manifesto opposes opening the multi-brand retail sector to foreign investment -- Modi's record in Gujarat gives hope. The state he has governed for more than a decade produces a quarter of India's exports, has grown faster than the national economy for the last six years, and has an industrial base that more closely resembles China than the rest of India. A decisive victory for his party will help quell fears that alliance politics with regional leaders will put the new governing coalition in a policy straitjacket, precluding the dramatic reforms necessary to restore India's economic vigor.
India's return to dynamic growth through infrastructure investment and the rollback of antiquated restrictions on business will have international implications irrespective of the country's external orientation. But India's foreign policy will also be shaped by the ambitions of the man at the top. Here, hints about a potential Prime Minister Modi's worldview are intriguing.
It was the last BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who declared India and the United States "natural allies" after decades of alienation. His government conducted nuclear tests to balance China's military power and opened the door to U.S.-India defense cooperation. Vajpayee also sought détente with Pakistan, bullet-proofed by his hawkishness against charges of appeasement. This policy trifecta -- strategic partnership with America, strengthened deterrence against China, and an opening to Pakistan -- would be a neat hat trick for Modi to recreate, if he wins the election. He should also build on the new depth of strategic cooperation India's current government has developed with Japan, which could be a game changer for Asia. These policies would enjoy popular support: Most Indians view America and Japan favorably, see danger in China's growing power, and fear instability in Pakistan.
Modi heralds Vajpayee's foreign policy as the right blend of shanti and shakti -- peace and power. He promises to vigorously resist China's "mindset of expansion," including its claims to Arunachal Pradesh. His vision for U.S.-India relations remains opaque, tinged by a visa ban Washington imposed following the Gujarat violence. But he will certainly seek greater American trade and investment to catalyze Indian growth. This may be enough. The best way to restore momentum to U.S.-India relations is to get India growing again, making it a more attractive partner to the world's superpower.
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