Grinding poverty the reality for millions


  • AseanPlus News
  • Sunday, 16 May 2004

By PETER FOSTER and RAHUL BEDI

THE shock defeat of India's ruling coalition was the electoral equivalent of a peasants' revolt. 

For the past decade India's leaders have presented to the world a vision of a brave, new, “shining” India. It is a high-tech country of mobile phones, gleaming glass call centres and double-digit economic growth. 

India’s President APJ Abdul Kalam even wrote a grandly titled book, India 2020 – A Vision for the New Millennium, in which he set out how the country could achieve developed status within 25 years. 

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Indians, the reality of life remains grinding poverty where nothing much seems to be “shining”. 

The wealth generated by economic reforms, visible in urban India in the shape of modern cars and Western branded clothes, has yet to trickle down to the impoverished rural areas. 

More than 300 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day – many without the basic necessities such as power, water and sanitation. 

The first clear sign of rejection of “Shining India” came earlier this week when Chandrababu Naidu, the face of India's IT revolution, was voted out of office as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. 

During nine years in office, Naidu – feted by everyone from Bill Clinton and Bill Gates to the World Bank – attracted more than £1bil (RM6.6bil) in foreign investment and turned the state capital, Hyderabad, from a dusty dump into India's smartest, cleanest city. 

And yet – as opposition parties were quick to turn to their electoral advantage – just a few miles outside the city, farmers were committing suicide in record numbers. 

The World Bank praised Naidu for ending the tradition of giving farmers free electricity, a subsidy that continues to be a major drag on India’s economy. But while the policy won Naidu plaudits from international economists, it won few votes among the rural poor. 

Congress and other Leftist parties, while supporting economic reform in India, have accused the World Bank of pushing through such reforms without considering the fate of ordinary people. 

Congress promised a more inclusive society, attempting to reduce the gap between the new middle classes and a disenfranchised majority. 

Many strategists had assumed that a bountiful monsoon, soaring stock markets and the first ever Test series win by an Indian cricket team in Pakistan had put the ruling coalition in an impregnable position. 

However, Sonia Gandhi’s supporters were celebrating with drums and firecrackers outside her residence in Delhi. 

And India’s stock market, which hit a four-year low when exit polls showed the country was heading for a hung parliament, rallied sharply when it became clear that a government was likely to be formed. 

“Over the next few days, the process of government formation will gather momentum,” said Sonia Gandhi. 

“We will take the lead to ensure our country has a strong, stable and secular government.” 

But the new administration faces immediate, challenging problems over security, foreign policy and counter insurgency that will seriously test its mettle. 

Talks with India’s rival, Pakistan, are due to begin later this month on the deadlocked issue of Kashmir, plus confidence-building measures on nuclear weapons and a host of other contentious issues. 

The outgoing Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, began the peace process with Pakistan earlier in the year, but substantive talks were postponed until after the elections. 

Unresolved territorial problems with China, over which the two countries fought a border war four decades ago in which India came off worse, are up for a fresh round of dialogue in Beijing at the end of the month.  

China had developed a close working rapport with Vajpayee during his visit to Beijing a year ago, but analysts said new relationships would need to be forged. 

America is expected to reinforce its fledgling security partnership with India and to begin, once again, pressuring a reluctant Delhi to dispatch peacekeeping troops to Iraq. 

Under pressure from Washington, India was on the verge last July of sending an army division of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers to Iraq. 

But Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist-led alliance deferred the decision, fearful that any casualties would affect their electoral prospects. 

In opposition, Congress opposed most of Vajpayee’s initiatives in knee-jerk fashion. But analysts said the responsibilities of government would make its judgment more realistic. 

“The new government will have to swiftly define its stand on a range of security and military issues, especially as it has shown neither lucidity nor clarity on them in the run-up to the elections,” said the former director of Net Assessment, Brigadier Arun Sahgal.  

“They do not have the luxury of time.” – The Daily Telegraph 

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