India's Uncertain Future

By , Perry L. Wood is a research fellow specializing in developing country politics and economic policy at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.

THE tragic murder of Rajiv Gandhi has shocked and sorrowed the world. For many observers, their natural sadness at the loss of a remarkable individual has been coupled with a sense of sadness for the end of an era - symbolized by the death of the last adult heir of the Nehru political dynasty.A question on many lips is, whither India now? The question is pertinent, but would have been equally pertinent before Rajiv's untimely death. India has been in the midst of a difficult and potentially dangerous political and social transformation since before the death of Rajiv's mother, Indira, in 1984. In reality, the era of Jawaharlal Nehru ended years ago. Rajiv's Congress Party bears little resemblance to the party led by his grandfather. Unlike Nehru's old Congress Party, today's Congress (I) Party lacks a regular membership, internal party elections and, most importantly, lower-level leaders with grass-roots support. Congress (I), created by Rajiv's mother, is a top-down party, dependent on the personal charisma of its leader and the public's fear of domestic instability to generate popular suppor t. The frantic, fumbling efforts of the Congress to choose a new leader immediately following Rajiv's murder showed the political bankruptcy of the party. While Congress may benefit from a sympathy vote in the aftermath of Rajiv's death, its success will be fleeting unless the new leadership carries out a thorough restructuring of the party. The decline of the Congress Party, however, is only part of the political transformation currently underway in India. Since the 1960s, India has been experiencing a rising tide of political activism. This popular political activity helped generate the decline of the old Congress Party by undermining the patronage networks around which it was organized. Indira Gandhi exploited the new activism against the old Congress Party bosses, but failed to organize it because she was unwilling to share power with gr ass-roots party leaders. Today, ethnic, regional, class, and caste-based political activism is rampant, while the institutional structure necessary to channel the increased participation is in decline. Strong political leadership has given way to weak coalition governments, erratic policies, and fiscal crisis. Rising violence and the increased involvement of criminal elements characterizes the electoral process; the police are corrupt, politicized, and ineffective; and charges of politicization and corruption have even been leveled at the Indian Army and civil service, bedrocks of Indian democracy. Statist solutions have some support within certain segments of the Indian elite. Such approaches emphasize continued centralization, top-down leadership, and reliance on the state's coercive powers. Alternatively, a grass-roots political organization (or organizations) could be formed to fulfill the same national integrating role once played by Nehru's old Congress Party. Only political parties with strong organizational links to the grass roots would be able to effectively mediate the rise of popular participation. The BJP could be one such party. But its association with Hindu extremism raises potentially dire tensions in India's complex, religiously divided society. The future course of Indian democracy will have vital consequences for the United States and the world. India is the world's most populous democracy and a rising power in world affairs. While popular perceptions of India center around the poor masses, India also has a wealthy and highly skilled middle class committed to supporting an international leadership role for their country. Since 1980, India has been engaged in a steady military buildup, which has greatly strengthened its land and air forces and created the most powerful navy in the third world. In addition, India is widely believed to possess the capability to produce and deploy nuclear weapons and, on May 22, 1989, it launched its first intermediate range ballistic missile. AS India's power rises, the US is attempting to improve Indo-American relations to forge a closer relationship between the two nations. But the statist tendency in Indian politics raises questions about the long-term wisdom of closer technological and military links. A statist Indian regime would be more likely to pursue aggressive foreign and defense policies which could bring it into conflict with the US. Quite apart from its own commitment to democracy, therefore, the US has an important stake in the future of Indian democracy. How India deals with its troubles will not only have important implications for its own future, but also for the Asian security environment and US interests in the region.

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