10 April 2019
Voting starts tomorrow in India, the world’s largest democracy. It is a hefty process that involves 900 million voters, eleven million electoral officials and 800,000 polling stations. Voting will occur on seven nominated days over the next six weeks, with the results due on 23 May.
Indian elections are an incredible feat. They reflect a commitment to democracy that would seem to confirm, for nations such as Australia, vast potential for partnership. Here is a country set to have the world’s largest population by 2035, and that has one of the fastest-growing economies; but, unlike China, it is committed to democracy and openness. Yet, Australia’s trade and diplomatic ties with India are relatively thin, and the two countries’ global outlooks are not always aligned. India’s rise is reshaping its politics – this election will indicate the extent of these changes, and whether they will lead to new opportunities for cooperation with Australia.
As voting begins, the favourite is current prime minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 seats in the 545-member lower house in 2014, the first such outright victory since 1984. Modi’s main rival is Rahul Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party, which ruled for decades but has been struggling to capitalise on Modi’s missteps.
In recent years, India’s economy has been faltering. Unemployment is rising, and corruption remains rampant. The population is still largely rural, but many farmers have been struggling, partly due to drought and the warming climate, but also due to Modi’s reforms, including the elimination of 500- and 1000-rupee notes. The currency reform was designed to curb corruption and tax evasion, but it hurt farmers, who often rely on a cash economy during harvesting seasons. In December last year, the Congress won a series of surprise election victories in three farming states – a result that raised questions about support for Modi in rural India. But two months later his fortunes were quickly revived following a suicide bombing by Pakistan-based militants in the disputed Kashmir region. Modi launched an air strike on Pakistan, the first such attack by India since the last full-scale war between the two countries in 1971. It was risky, and it could set a dangerous precedent for how India will respond to terrorist attacks, but it boosted the prime minister’s popularity and strengthened his reputation as a defiant nationalist. Most analysts predict Modi will win the election, though he may have to form a coalition.
Analysts also predict India’s strong growth to continue. By 2030, it is expected to become the world’s third-largest economy. As it rises – and particularly under Modi – it has been adopting a more assertive stance in foreign affairs.
Unlike Australia, India is not an ally of the United States, and it pursues a non-aligned foreign policy. However, Modi has been developing closer technological and military ties with Washington. He has also taken an unpredictable approach towards China. Despite their border tensions in the Himalayas, India’s leader has held multiple friendly meetings with Xi Jinping, and shown relative restraint towards Beijing, particularly in light of China’s close ties to Pakistan. Modi’s strategy appears to be consistent with the position outlined by Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who claimed the country “has moved on from its non-aligned past”. “India is today an aligned state – but based on issues,” he said earlier this year.
Such a stance paves the way for Australia to identify areas of shared interest with India, both in trade and diplomacy. Australia’s annual trade with India has almost doubled in the past five years to about A$29 billion – still a relatively disappointing amount that is only slightly larger than trade with New Zealand.
To some extent, the future of the relationship will depend on whether the two countries can find a common approach to the rise of China. Peter Varghese, a former high commissioner to India, wrote a 500-page report last year on the Australia–India relationship for the federal government, in which he suggested that the two countries could work together to balance China’s rise and promote regional stability. But he also noted that while Australia would be comfortable with a dominant but democratic China, India, as a vast regional power, will inevitably see China as an immovable source of competition. “India’s concerns about a powerful China would exist irrespective of whether China were a democracy,” Varghese wrote. A corollary to this is that India will not necessarily see its own thriving and sprawling democracy as a guarantor of close and enduring relations with Australia.
As Australia has long lamented, this is a relationship with inbuilt complexities and limitations. Nonetheless, India’s politics and economy are changing fast, and potentially to Australia’s benefit. The election will send some important signals about the direction of this rising global power, whose stumbles and missteps largely occur in the light of democracy.