Published by Current on 2009-05-17
The verdict of more than 410 million voters on Saturday — more people than live in the entire Arab world — not only highlighted the continuing dominance of India’s oldest political organization, the Indian National Congress. It also reinforced a central tenet of the Congress — and, indeed, of the Indian polity itself: secularism.
The election results for the 543-member Lok Sabha — the Lower House of the Parliament — will mean that a Congress-led government will continue in office for the next five years. But the larger message of Indian voters was that in a land of 1.2 billion people there was little room for sectarian or communal divisions. While the overwhelming number of Indians are Hindus, there are still nearly 200 million Muslims, in effect making India the world’s largest Islamic nation after Indonesia.
Those Muslims have long felt threatened by the rhetoric and actions of a number of regional and even national organisations, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, some of whose more irresponsible leaders have a tendency to blame Muslims for everything from social disorders and municipal malfeasance to the failure of monsoons.
While Indian Muslims haven’t necessarily supported the Congress unequivocally, they have also never felt uncomfortable under its umbrella. Whatever else can be said about the Congress — that, for instance, it has tolerated corruption or encouraged nepotism — the party cannot be accused of fomenting divisions between India’s religious communities.
The Congress has universally been perceived as the part of communal tolerance. That perception flows out of the Congress’s unique history. The spirit of tolerance that the Congress has espoused dates back to its founding in 1885 by an Englishman, Allan ?Octavian Hume.
It was, of course, an irony, that a Briton should start a party that would lead the largely nonviolent struggle for independence from the British Raj.
Independence would come in 1947, some 150 years after the British arrived in India, masquerading as traders and then quickly exploiting domestic rivalries to their advantage to construct through wile and guile what the late English novelist Paul Scott memorably called Britain’s “Jewel in the Crown” — the biggest prize in a global empire on which the sun never set.
When independence came, there was a price to pay. It was the price of partition, an issue that’s still hotly debated. Under a still controversial formula, the British divided up the larger entity of India into two nations — Islamic Pakistan, and secular India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — the Mahatma — was opposed to such partition, but hotter heads prevailed. The two countries have been rancorous neighbours ever since, fighting three wars over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim.
The two countries also both possess nuclear weapons, an especially worrying development in view of the continuing disintegration of Pakistan as a governable state. But throughout this year’s election campaign, the Congress Party made it a point to emphasise that it would continue to explore diplomatic détente with Pakistan, engendering considerable amity.
He will need that sort of continued goodwill not only from Pakistan’s Muslims but also those in India itself.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi has decided that Singh should continue as prime minister; he is also certain to be asked to include more Muslims — and more members of India’s less privileged classes — in the ?federal government.
Such inclusion would be typical of the Congress, of course; after all, one of the party’s icons, and India’s first prime minister, the late Jawaharlal Nehru, once characterised the Congress as a great tent into which everyone ?was welcome.
Indeed, in a brief appearance before the media yesterday afternoon in New Delhi, both Mrs Gandhi and Mr Singh touched on the significance of ?secularism in India.
It cannot be otherwise. This is too large a country — a third the size of the United States, with some 75 per cent of its people under the age of 30, with rising aspirations and ambitions and expectations — for India to be anything other than a land of economic opportunities and social mobility for everyone from every community.
That’s a huge challenge, and a perennial one, but now the Congress and its allies have a renewed mandate ?for governance.
The party showed in this election that its victorious candidates constitute a deep bench of political talent. Their demography reflects that of youthful India. They represent the marvelous diversity of this ancient land that’s being transformed into a modern-day global power. They represent a voice that resonates with secularism.
And so, this formidable challenge notwithstanding, this election highlighted — for one visiting son of the soil, at least — a special aspect of India’s sustaining magic.
It is a magic of the ages, and it is a magic for the ages — it is the magic of mobilising an entire Subcontinent in the cause of the common good. The vehicle for conjuring this magic is the electoral process.
But the real weapon for wielding that magic is the national will to summon voters not just as voters from this or that district, or this state or that, but as a people committed to secularism. That magic will endure.
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist