Yet again, India's voters confounded the pundits and comfortably returned the Congress Party alliance to power. Now the question is whether Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and their colleagues can return the compliment and get to grips with the immense problems and the enormous opportunities of the economy without being constantly diverted by petty political bickering. It is not as easy as it seems, not least because India faces deep social divisions and institutional constraints and because the global turmoil and the need for continuing economic reforms may be pushing India in conflicting directions. India's growth will fall to about 6per cent this year. But the damage to the economy is not as deep as in the west: the banks are still healthy, and India is not as export-dependent as other fast-growing countries, notably China. Recent years of rapid growth have shown both India's great potential and some potentially devastating flaws. Optimists, including P. Chidambaram, finance minister and then home minister in the outgoing government, declared that 'the best is yet to come' when he announced record growth of more than 9.3 per cent for 2007. Various think-tanks estimate that India's economy could grow to US$30 trillion to US$40 trillion by 2050, with per capita income close to US$20,000. At these levels, it would be vying with the United States for the second-biggest economy in the world after China. Growth, averaging 8.6 per cent annually from 2002 to 2007, has led to the rapid rise of a middle class that is demanding cars, televisions, refrigerators, not for status but as ordinary household assets, along with good health care and better schooling. The size of this middle class is expected to grow by 2025 to 580 million or 40 per cent of the population, giving optimists hope that India will benefit from a virtuous circle of growth leading to more growth. But there are some uncomfortable factors twisting towards a vicious spiral. India's middle class is dwarfed by the immense numbers of the poor. The government has glossed over it by setting modest standards of income of 18 rupees (HK$2.84) in urban areas and 12 rupees in rural areas to mark the poverty line, by which measurement only 28 per cent of Indians are in poverty. But by the World Bank's US$2 a day yardstick, 86 per cent of Indians are poor. By the government's minimum standards for food and nourishment, about 70 per cent fall below the poverty line. India particularly lags China in education. This means that the strength of a growing labour force is a potentially crippling weakness. Fewer than 20 per cent of India's 14 million new jobseekers each year have had any sort of vocational training. India's literacy rate is still only 67 per cent against China's 90 per cent. Infrastructure is another critical area where India is a long way behind. With strong central decision-making, Beijing laid the foundations for a modern economy - roads, railways and airports to electricity and telecommunications. But India has struggled against revenue constraints, corruption, diversion of funds and constant political infighting. The re-election of the Congress alliance only a few seats short of an overall majority does create a government that can pursue a coherent policy. India should do more to encourage exports from their growing but still modest 21 per cent of GDP, but it will run into a maze of problems, including its own protectionism in an increasingly protectionist age.