Much Ado About Nothing: India’s 2009 Elections and Rewarding Manmohan

Over the past few months, electoral observers around the world have focused an eye on India, where every five years the world’s largest democracy in arguably the most diverse land participate in a voting ritual seen nowhere else on earth. To political experts and those close to the ground in various regions of the country, interesting story lines emerged during the two-month exercise.

Analysts, for example, wondered whether (1) the ruling party — Congress, led by current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh via Sonia Gandhi — would gain enough votes for a clear majority to maintain power; (2) if a rising female political phenom — Mayawati, from the volatile east, who is savvy enough to be known by only one name; and (3) if the main opposition party — the nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), known for their strength in security — would successfully convert the recent spats of terrorism on Indian soil into a call for political change.

After this past weekend, it turns out, that #2 (Mayawati) and #3 (the BJP) were much ado about nothing. The Congress party thumped in the national elections, grabbed a majority of Parliamentary seats, and cemented their mandate as the ruling party of the world’s largest democracy and soon-to-be most populous country. And, the elections rewarded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his cool leadership style with another five years to guide his nation through the dangerous economic and security winds that swirl around South Asia.

Now with the elections behind us, to me, this was really no surprise. I’ll let the countless other media outlets analyze the many facets of this electoral competition. But to me, personally, sitting far away from India with an eye on the country, it seemed completely unrealistic that India would risk the positive, incremental course it’s on to try on untested political waters or revert back to a more nationalist pitch.

Manmohan Singh, though some may think otherwise, is not just a figurehead for Sonia Gandhi’s ruling government, but also the architect, then as Finance Minister, of India’s financial reforms of 1991 and economic liberalization that have put his country on a path to remarkable years of economic growth. While some (incorrectly) believe that PM Singh is just “keeping the seat warm” for Sonia’s well-groomed son, Rahul, to take over the reigns over the party and ride India’s youth movement once he’s more widely accepted as a political figure, I see things differently.

The 2009 Indian elections were an indirect reflection of how well over 50% of Indians have chosen to publicly sanction and vicariously adopt the cool demeanor of their Prime Minister and, implicit in their choice is the realization that, despite all of India’s well-researched issues — energy concerns, security risks, abysmal schools, healthcare costs, poverty, and so forth — that if given a binary choice between change and more of the same, the overwhelming majority of citizens wanted to stay on the path that their leader has been blazing for them since over 20 years ago.

Why wouldn’t they? Despite all of the curveballs that India will undoubtedly see — whether from Pakistan or Afghanistan, or in Copenhagen, or with its domestic economic health — the country and its citizens seemed to have asked and affirmatively answered a simple yet decisive line of inquiry:

Are you better off today than you were 5 years ago?
And, over the past 20 years, has life gotten better?

The answer was as simple as the question: Yes.

And, with this election, and with the Congress party and PM Singh behind the wheel for five more years, I can safely predict that the United States and India will continue to trend toward warmer and warmer relations across a wide spectrum of industries and policies. This is an outcome that is both good for India, good for the U.S., and ultimately, good for the world.

[Footnote: World financial markets responded positively, too.]