Joseph D'Souza: India elections now underway deserve attention from US

The world’s largest exercise in democracy is underway in India – and it could have important consequences for America and the rest of the planet.

More than 900 million Indians are eligible to vote and more than 500 million are expected to cast ballots in a nationwide election that began Thursday and continues until May 19.

The election for seats in India’s lower house of parliament is viewed as a referendum on the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

INDIA'S RULING PARTY RELEASES MANIFESTO DAYS BEFORE ELECTION

While Modi and his supporters stress his accomplishments to improve India’s national security and increase economic development, his opponents say the hardline religious nationalism that has been associated with his party has worsened tensions between religious groups.

With a rapidly growing population of nearly 1.37 billion, India has more than four times as many people as the United States and a larger population than any country except China. Yet most U.S. news organizations seldom carry stories about India, leaving a majority of Americans unfamiliar with developments in the country.

But while we’ve been preoccupied with domestic news – and foreign news centered on Middle East conflicts, China, North Korea, Russia and nations in the European Union – much has been changing in India. The sleeping giant has awakened and become a far more prominent player on the world stage.

For example, you probably don’t know that:

  • By 2025 India is expected to surpass China as the most populous nation on Earth.
  • By 2030 India is expected to have the second-largest economy in the world.
  • Just last month, India – which has been a nuclear power since 1974 – became the fourth country capable of destroying an object in space.
  • India is now one of the world’s largest arms importers, spending more than $100 billion annually on weapons and military equipment.

Given its massive footprint, India’s domestic politics shouldn’t be ignored, for the ripple effects are felt from Delhi and Mumbai to Beijing and Washington.

As Indians cast ballots, Americans and people around the world should pay attention to three issues.

Freedom of religion and speech

One big question for India following the election will be: will it continue to be a nation of freedom of belief and speech?

One of the most impressive feats Indian democracy accomplished in the last century was bringing its sprawl of religions and groups under a single national identity.

India is a nation for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and people with no religion, according to the framers of India’s constitution. However, this constitutional freedom of religion and speech has come under siege by extremists who do not believe in an India for all and want to make their particular brand of religious identity the litmus test for citizenship.

In the past few years, so-called cow vigilantes have terrorized Muslims and Dalits – or “untouchables” – because they eat beef or work in the cattle industry. Christians in northern India have been harassed through anti-conversion laws.

And journalists and scholars who defend rationalism and oppose violence have been attacked by religious and nationalist extremists.

The election campaign has intensified violence and hostility as politicians have manipulated existing religious tensions and ethnic identities to divide and mobilize voting blocs.

Rise of the outcastes

Although India’s constitution banned the practice of untouchability against the Dalits, most Americans don’t realize the caste system remains intact. The system’s social and psychological damage to Indian society is still felt by millions of Indians.

The Dalits and tribal populations account for at least 250 million people. If you add in other low castes, more than half of India’s population is victimized by discrimination due to their family origins.

After centuries of discrimination, these “outcastes” have had enough and are rising against some of the worst social inequalities in the world.

For example, despite having the world’s fastest-growing economy, India has the greatest income inequality of any country. Nearly one-third of India’s population lives below the poverty line, leading to illiteracy and poor health.

In fact, India is home to the largest group of illiterate people in the world. By some estimates, one in three of the world’s illiterate population lives in India.

And although India’s maternal mortality rate is dropping, Dalit women die on average 14.6 years younger than other Indian women.

And farmers – most belonging to low castes – are committing suicide at an alarming rate because of debt, climate change, and health and family issues. The BBC reports that “at least 300,000 farmers have killed themselves since 1995.”The world should pay close to how India deals with these issues.

But while we’ve been preoccupied with domestic news – and foreign news centered on Middle East conflicts, China, North Korea, Russia and nations in the European Union – much has been changing in India. The sleeping giant has awakened and become a far more prominent player on the world stage.

To address some of these issues, the government has proposed measures such as loan waivers for farmers and a 10 percent reservation in government jobs and education slots for those with low incomes, adding to previous job quotas set aside for members of lower castes.

But experience has taught that – beyond being constitutionally problematic – these measures cannot fix a problem that is ingrained in a people’s mind.

The caste system is really about how Indians see each other. If India wants to make a significant step toward addressing inequality, the caste system should be abolished.

Unemployment and disaffected youth

More than half of India’s citizens are under the age of 25. This youthful majority elected the current leadership, but their need for jobs has not been met.

Millions of young people – many of them with university degrees – are released each year into a declining job market with little to no prospect of employment. A stark example is last year’s recruitment campaign by the Ministry of Railways: the ministry received 19 million applications for 63,000 openings.

Recent policy decisions have not helped either. A 2016 demonetization plan destroyed millions of jobs in the informal economy, and the move to ban the slaughter of cattle – animals many Hindus consider holy – caused serious harm to the economy.

Politicians’ promises to give every unemployed person a monthly allowance are a quick fix for an issue that has no quick solutions.

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The unemployed population would be a huge asset for any economy if provided with skills training and jobs. Instead, they are increasingly becoming disaffected and disillusioned – exactly the kind of young, vulnerable people extremist groups prey upon.

The world should pay close to how India deals with these issues. The election now underway will help determine which path India takes to build its future.