Zakaria: India's Coming-Out Party

One can date precisely China's debut as a great power. It was the evening of Aug. 8, 2008—the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The event perfectly symbolized China's rise, a spectacular and expensive feat of mass organization, directed by the country's highly competent government. We might look back a few years from now and date India's coming-out party to May 18, 2009, the day its most recent election results were announced. They are also a fitting symbol—in this case of India's unique strengths, which are defined not by state power but people power, with all the messiness and chaos that implies. With 420 million people voting, the recent polls were the biggest exercise of democracy in history.

But the global significance of the election—and the reason it might usher in a new age for India on the world stage—was not the fact of it, but the results. Over the past two decades, India has been consumed by its internal divisions: of caste, ethnicity and religion. This has made it difficult for the government in New Delhi to mobilize national power to any purposeful end in global affairs. A decentralized and divided polity has punched well below its weight internationally. That's bad for India and bad for the world. This could all change now. For the first time in three decades, a single party—the Indian National Congress— was given a clear and broad mandate.

The Indian electorate is one of the world's poorest and least educated, and yet it voted with remarkable intelligence. The ruling Congress party was rewarded for economic growth. Contrary to the hopes of India's many left-wing pundits, people support the move toward a more open (and thus productive) economy. One can see this in the fact that Congress didn't win everywhere. Regional governments that had also pursued development (in Orissa and Bihar) were rewarded as well. The parties that stumbled badly were those that based their appeal on fear, hatred and identity politics—the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and smaller caste-based groups.

In recent years democracy around the world seemed to have fallen prey to two ills. First, populism seemed to trump economic reform. Second, in the age of terrorism, fear became an easy way to mobilize political support. (These problems have affected democracies in rich countries like America just as much as poor ones.) The Indian results contradict both notions. The Congress party has been reasonably reform-minded economically and highly responsible on issues of terrorism and tolerance. It chose to show restraint after the recent Mumbai terror attacks and was vilified by the opposition as weak. The voters didn't buy it.

This victory is a mandate not just for the Congress party but within it for the remarkable troika of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party leader Sonia Gandhi, and her son, Rahul Gandhi, 38. The latter has spent the last few years doing the seemingly impossible—reviving the grassroots of the Congress party, which over the years had become less a political organization and more a fawning and corrupt court. He made a series of big strategic bets during the campaign—to field young candidates and not to ally with caste-based parties. Every one paid off.

The media, particularly in India, have tended to be skeptical of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's political skills. Yet they have presided over two electoral wins in a span of six years, are rejuvenating a sclerotic party and have done all this while maintaining a principled commitment to secularism, economic reform and good government. (Singh is the most scrupulously honest man in Indian politics in at least three decades.) Neither mother nor son has yet taken a government post, and while this can be described as clever calculation or biding their time, how many people, when offered the prime ministership of the world's second-largest country, would show such discipline and restraint?

The great challenge for the 21st-century world is to find a way to bring India, China and Brazil into the international system. This task is often seen as a Western one. But equally important, the emerging powers must assume their international roles and act responsibly on the world stage. That means taking a global—and not narrowly national—perspective on issues like terrorism, energy, the environment, trade, disease and nonproliferation. This election has empowered an Indian government that—compared with all the alternatives—is the most likely to adopt a responsible approach to its world role. Even under tight political constraints, Prime Minister Singh reoriented the country's foreign policy. With a national mandate, he can act more broadly and boldly on all fronts.

"India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator," said Winston Churchill. Churchill had a sorry track record on India. As prime minister, he ruled out freedom for the colony, saying, "I have not become the king's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." In five years, India would be independent. Now, more than 60 years later, India has once again outwitted Sir Winston Churchill.