Democracy Writ Large

India's national elections, the 11th since independence from Britain 49 years ago, deserve more attention than they've been getting.

The world's largest democracy - some 590 million people were eligible to vote this time around - is, in a sense, up for grabs. The long-dominant Congress Party has been deteriorating for years, its Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty a memory.

Economic liberalization under current Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao has moved in fits and starts. A sprawling corruption scandal early this year, which has tainted politicians across party lines, including Mr. Rao, didn't help. Many Indians suspect free-market reforms such as privatization have primarily benefited graft-prone officeholders.

At the same time, India is struggling to find a more influential role for itself in its region and the world. Perennial border tensions - with Pakistan over Kashmir, and to a lesser extent with China - cause worries about military modernization. The question of nuclear capability looms.

Into this turbulent transitional period step a political cast of characters bereft of the charismatic nation-builders that guided the country's first decades of freedom.

Rao, who hopes to garner enough seats in Parliament to form another government, represents what's left of the old-line Congress Party faithful. He's bland, but he has shown himself a shrewd political operator. He may yet be able to push his economic program ahead, which could help bring India into the global mainstream. The country's potential is vast. India has, for instance, abundant high-tech talent.

But Rao's biggest advantage ought to be his stance for secular democracy and recognition of the rights of Muslims and other minorities. The prime minister has critics and rivals within the fragmenting Congress Party itself, but his chief electoral challenge comes from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This party, an electoral bit player a decade ago, has steadily risen on a tide of Hindu nationalism. Until one of its own top officials was tarred by the kickback scandals, it also drew support as an opponent of official corruption.

Some long-time observers of India have contended that a party like the BJP, which promotes narrow sectarian interests, couldn't take power in remarkably diverse India. But the party could end up with the largest number of seats in Parliament when most of the votes in the multi-round elections are finally tallied later this week.

That doesn't necessarily mean the BJP will find the partners needed to form a government. Its anti-Muslim image, while played down in public by some of its leaders, goes against India's foundational commitment to inclusiveness. The always simmering threat of communal violence argues for moderation in Indian politics.

Other factors pull to the political extremes. Tensions have been building, for instance, over the privileges granted minorities - the Muslims' exemption from portions of civil law, for example, and the jobs and academic slots set aside for people from the traditionally shunned lower castes.

Ardent Hindu nationalists have been active for decades, long before the BJP's recent rise, and they have well-established grass-roots organizations. They may sense the time is right to push for greater recognition of the dominant Hindu culture.

Such cultural and political forces are no stranger to other democracies wrestling with diversity and equal treatment. It's just that in India the democratic stage is incredibly large, and the fissures caused by economic disparity and ethno-religious nationalism appear profoundly deep.

But Indian democracy has weathered other crises. Predictions of its demise have been numerous. Yet it perseveres - largely, perhaps, because a majority of those hundreds of millions of voters know their futures depend on it.

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