The hare and the tortoise?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 12:00am

India, it is almost certain, will have its first foreign-born prime minister. Sonia Gandhi, born 57 years ago in the village of Orbassano, near Milan, is set to become leader of the world's largest democracy, even though her Hindi is still Italian-accented and her religion is Catholic. And all the people who voted for her knew that.

You can imagine a non-white woman as prime minister in Canada, or even Britain or France in the next 20 years; they have all had women prime ministers, and most of the urban under-40s are virtually colour-blind. The United States may get a woman president in 2008 (her name is Hillary Clinton). But Mrs Gandhi is the wrong colour, the wrong sex, speaks the wrong native language, is of the wrong religion - and Indians still voted for her.

It was magnificent, and all the more so because they were consciously rejecting the racist and sectarian incitements of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party that deliberately targets minorities. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to moderate the BJP's sectarian message to win support from India's Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and the 180 million Dalits (untouchables) who are excluded by orthodox Hinduism - but he could not pry them away from their traditional loyalty to Mrs Gandhi's Congress party. So Congress and its allies won a majority of seats in parliament, to the astonishment of all the analysts.

Urban India has done well under the BJP - 8 per cent economic growth last year - but the rural areas were left behind. Congress' key election promise was that one member of each rural household will have a job for 100 days a year. It may be a hard promise to keep, but it did the trick. With the support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has long ruled West Bengal in a distinctly non-Marxist style, Congress will form India's next government - and Sonia Gandhi will be prime minister.

What an extraordinary contrast with India's major Asian rival, China. China is far ahead of India economically, but it has yet to hold its first democratic election. Even if it did, can you imagine people electing a non-native-born ethnic Chinese? Imagine if that person was a woman, and was born in another continent, but chose to become Chinese. It is unthinkable - which says a great deal about the difference between the two countries.

India should not worry about being left behind by China, for it made the democratic transition long ago and it now inhabits a different political universe. China's poor are at least as alienated as India's, but they have no vote, no way of changing their situation, short of violence. Politics in China can still lurch into violent extremes like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, and there is a long and dangerous transition ahead before it becomes a modern, democratic country.

India has democratic safety valves that let the pressure escape; China does not. China will doubtless get there in the end, but it is still vulnerable to upheavals that could cost it many years of growth. It may end up playing the hare to India's slow-but-steady tortoise.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist