Slumbering elephant stirs

India, often described as a sleeping elephant in contrast to the Chinese dragon, has thrown up a clear verdict for change. With a new prime minister and an all-new government, what will this mean for the world – and the Pacific?

Dev Nadkarni

Last month the world’s largest democracy delivered it’s most decisive verdict in three decades, completely belying the prognoses of political pundits of all hues. An overwhelming majority of India’s voters sent a loud and clear message to the political class: they were fed up with the status quo and wanted big changes in the world’s second most populous nation. Does this signal the stirring of the proverbial slumbering elephant?

The Indian elections are a statistical spectacle that has always held the free world spellbound. It is the biggest political logistic exercise anywhere in the world. The latest polls had 815 million eligible voters, 935,000 polling stations, 11 million election officials, 8250 candidates contesting 543 seats, in an election process that ran from April 7 to May 12, the longest ever. The voting was totally paperless with the deployment of more than 1.7 million electronic voting machines. At more than 66 per cent, this election saw the biggest voter turnout ever – underscoring the steely determination of the Indian public to vote for change.

Unambiguous verdict

The results were declared on May 16 and the country’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was declared the winner with a clear majority. The Congress party, which has been in power for most of the years since the country’s independence, suffered the worst ever loss in its history. For the first time in thirty years, the electorate has delivered so clear a verdict that the winning party will need no coalition support from its allies. It can govern on its own. On May 26, Narendra Modi, who led the party to this decisive victory, became India’s new Prime Minister.

In many ways, this election has been a game changer for India and its dealings with the world. For one, the voting public has put the dynastically ruled Congress Party and its corruption tainted leaders out to pasture. It has swept to power a humble, former street tea vendor to the country’s highest office – something that has not only never happened before but was inconceivable given the Nehru-Gandhi family’s dynastic hold on the upper echelons of India’s politics.

The previous regime was racked with dozens of mega corruption scandals running into billions of dollars, involving almost every core industry sector ranging from mining and energy to telecommunications and infrastructure. India, once touted as the second fastest growing economy, with near double digit growth rates at the turn of the century, has slowed down to almost half that. Infrastructure growth is lagging behind and the country’s institutions, its bureaucracy and its workforce are in dire need of modernisation.

Negative portrayal belied

Prime Minister Modi has been widely portrayed as being a hardline right wing politician and has been accused of complicity in a major communal conflagration in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat where he has been the chief minister for 12 years. The fact that India’s supreme court has exonerated him has not convinced a section of his critics. But now the silent Indian voter, with such an unambiguous verdict, has all but silenced even his bitterest critic.

The campaign against Mr Modi and his party was so strong that several countries including the United States and the United Kingdom denied him visas while they had no qualms about laying out the red carpet to proven political rogues from other parts of the world. These two powerful countries, too, have been delivered a firm message by the Indian voter through the most democratic of processes – a message they simply cannot ignore. And they haven’t: just hours after the results were declared last month, both countries shamefacedly extended invitations to Mr Modi to visit them.

Analysts and long time India watchers see this election as a turning point in the country’s history, not only internally within the country and not just with its neighbours, with many of whom it has had difficult relationships, but also with the rest of the world. Throughout his election campaign, Mr Modi has stressed on inclusiveness and even in this most decisive of election victories has invited dialogue with an all but decimated opposition.

Mantra of inclusiveness

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif became the first ever prime minister of his country to attend the oath taking ceremony of an Indian prime minister. Prime ministers of nearly all the SAARC countries, too, attended. It is widely believed that Mr Modi will most likely look east before he looks west. Reports indicate that the Chinese dragon seems happy to play ball with the stirring elephant: it is looking forward to the new dispensation in New Delhi and to building new bridges with a fresh administration that is widely seen as being far more business friendly and efficient than the one before.

India’s old ties with Russia are also likely to be strengthened. An India-Russia-China counterweight to the west looks more possible now than at any stage before in history. In his television interviews in the run up to the polls, he has talked about improving relations with countries across the world following the ancient Indian concept of ‘the world is truly one family’. He has talked extensively, particularly about reaching out to nations that are now home to India’s nearly 30 million strong diaspora scattered across the globe. That includes countries like Fiji, Mauritius, the Maldives, Suriname, the Caribbean states, among others.

Opportunities for the Pacific

There is great hope among Indians as well as the rest of the world that the country’s stalled business reforms will continue and Indian business will be far more integrated into the world economy than before. This presents a great opportunity for the Pacific Islands region just as it does for many other countries. Just as the region has developed deep links with China, which is now beginning to bear fruit for the islands, it can now look with hope to another huge marketplace of a billion people and more.

Indian businesses are slowly but surely increasing their presence in the region. There are several Indian firms operating in Papua New Guinea and looking for opportunities further into the Pacific. Indian professionals are also known the world over for their work ethic, pragmatism, entrepreneurship and innovative styles of doing business. Their ability to communicate in the English language makes it easier for them to work with the rest of the world. This is an asset that the region can leverage, just as the US and the UK have over the past few decades.

Now is a better time than ever before for the Pacific’s leadership to think in terms of setting up a collective presence for the region in New Delhi particularly with a view to attracting investment in the region and promoting trade. The Pacific region as a whole, bar Fiji, has been a bit of a blind spot for Indian administrations in the past. That needs to be corrected if the region is to benefit from the new, forward-looking Indian Government.

First appeared in the June 2014 issue of Islands Business