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India’s election has a big message for the Narc government

Our MPs are very fond of going to the coast for workshops – usually sponsored by donors. If a well-meaning donor can be found again, I have a suggestion: that all MPs be sent back to Mombasa. The task this time, however, would be to sit on the beach and stare across that beautiful expanse of water known as the Indian Ocean, at the country on the other side.

India has just had a general election, and the result is astounding. Against the predictions of all observers (this one included), the NDA coalition government has been unceremoniously shown the door. The venerable Congress Party – the party of the Nehrus and the Gandhis, which ruled India virtually without interruption from independence in 1947 to the 1990s – is back in charge.

Why is this so surprising? Because the NDA coalition, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at its head, had presided over one of the most impressive growth spurts in India’s history. The country has averaged 6 per cent annual growth in GDP since 1990, culminating in a dramatic 10.4 per cent achieved in the final quarter of last year. India today sits on over US$ 100 billion in foreign reserves. India has become the world’s ‘back office’ – providing outsourced computerised services to the rest of the world. This industry is expected to employ 4 million Indians by 2008.

The BJP, buoyed by this remarkable economic performance, embarked on an election campaign labelled ‘India Shining’. It banked on the powerful new ‘feelgood’ factor – the newfound affluence and confidence sweeping through the country’s urban middle class. Such was the BJP’s confidence that it expected to increase dramatically its tally of seats at the election, and consign the Congress Party to oblivion. Every major analyst and commentator expected the same.

What actually happened? As the results came in, it became apparent that it was Congress and its allies that enjoyed the support of the voters; the BJP and its coalition partners all faded badly. Earlier this week, Congress appointed a prime minister and formed a new coalition government. The darting hare was left stunned at the roadside; the ponderous tortoise was first past the winning post.

The parallels with our own Narc coalition government are spooky, to say the least. Consider this: an elderly, widely respected leader, feted as a statesman and a gentleman at home and abroad; a government that came in on a massive wave of voter protest against a party that had ruled for decades; a growth strategy that focused on the rich and the growing middle class and created an environment for massive inflows of direct foreign investment.

Did you think I was describing Narc? No, I was referring to India’s BJP, now recuperating on the dust heap of electoral failure.

What went wrong for the BJP, and what can Narc learn from this debacle? BJP strategists will tell you it was the political charisma of the Gandhi family, and particularly the mesmerising influence of the newest kids on the block, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, that swayed India’s gullible voters. The truth, I think, lies elsewhere.

The NDA government undoubtedly did some great things for India. It made great advances in modernising infrastructure – pristine highways and a vibrant telecommunications sector. It liberalised the financial sector and brought interest rates sharply down, fuelling an investment and consumption boom. It encouraged the participation of the private sector in the economy. It embarked on an ambitious programme of privatisation of state corporations.

All very nice, so where was the flaw? Quite simply this: that all of these reforms only touched 150 million out of India’s 1 billion people. The poor people of India were left out of the equation. The NDA government relied on the creation of an investment boom. This boom, orchestrated by young and thrusting American-educated advisors, had a dramatic impact on your life if you were a young, educated, upwardly mobile urban Indian – but left the teeming hordes in the countryside untouched. India shone only for a few. As yuppies were indulging in an orgy of consumption excess in the cities, thousands of farmers were committing suicide in the deep rural heartlands of the country, unable to feed their families.

I say it again: no country can develop by leaving its poor people behind. If we do not involve the mass of the country in economic development, any growth will be short-lived. We must make up-front investments in the poor of this country. This does not mean giving handouts or subsidies; it means giving ordinary Kenyans the freedom and the incentives to participate in their own development.

Rural farmers cannot join the market economy if we do not give them access roads to bring their produce to market. Jua kali entrepreneurs cannot grow their business beyond a certain point if we do not allow them legal rights over their assets and an organised venue in which to trade. Poor people cannot pull themselves out of poverty if they are not given access to knowledge and skills. No one who lacks access to health facilities, sanitation and drinking water can reasonably be expected to participate in the economy in any meaningful sense.

The Narc government, headed by an enthusiastic golfer, appears to have only one club in its golf bag. It spends untold time and resources at multiple seminars, wooing and courting foreign investors and donors. It is the investing class that is assumed to have the power to bring resuscitation to this ailing economy. It is the ‘trickle-down’ strategy that is presumed to bring ultimate benefits to the poor. As they spend all their energy pleading with the holders of foreign capital, our economic managers appear to be blind to the mountain of economic and social capital that they are sitting on. It’s all ‘top-down’; there is no ‘bottom-up’ in this lexicon. The poor must wait.

The problem with that is the democratic process. We have given these poor people a vote each. As India discovered last week, a maturing electorate is not averse to demanding its rights in the polling stations. If Narc does not wish to be more than a brief footnote in Kenya’s history, its mandarins had better pay heed to this message from across the ocean.

India will continue on its growth path. Its investments in knowledge and its philosophy of self-help are at the heart of its success. It merely needs to change its priorities to embrace the poor. Kenya needs a more fundamental shift in thinking.

A final note on the Indian election: Sonia Gandhi, head of the triumphant Congress Party, this week turned down the position of Prime Minister that was now hers to take. The Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi said she was doing this in the interests of the nation. As my friend Gado illustrated in the Daily Nation on Thursday: can we in our wildest, most psychedelic dreams, imagine a Kenyan politician turning down the chance to lead the country, in the interest of others?

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