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Dynastic Duties in India

For the masses of poor in China who resent being left out of their nation's rush to riches, often the only choice is to revolt. In India, by contrast, the poor can vote.

And vote they did over the past three weeks in parliamentary elections whose final tallies Thursday sent this message to the ousted ruling party: Don't let the country's historic shift to a market-driven economy leave behind over half of India's 1 billion people who still live on less than $2 a day.

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A vibrant democracy is why India's economy, largely liberated in the '90s from the socialist smothering of the past, could someday surpass that of China, its competing global giant.

India's elections are a political check on excessive disparities in wealth and lifestyles, preventing a dangerous boil-over of resentment. And the disparities are glaring: A few high-tech cities with cellphones, 24/7 electricity, and paved highways are a universe apart from rural villages with no power or clean water, rutted dirt roads, and lack of jobs.

The ousted Bharatiya Janata Party and its coalition came to power in 1998 focusing on Hindu nationalism and making India a nuclear power. It switched too late to distributing the benefits of economic reforms. Even its celebratory campaign slogan, "India Shining," rang hollow to the poor.

The elections have shifted power back to India's founding party and its Gandhi dynasty. The Congress party is now headed by the Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Their two politically active children were attractive vote-getters, but the party's promise to focus on rural development is what really catapulted it back to power.

Fulfilling that promise won't be easy. Congress didn't win a majority of seats, and will need to align with smaller leftist parties. While it has since moved away from its socialist path of government intrusion in industry, it may be tempted to slow down such liberal reforms as privatization of state enterprises in order to help the poor.

But there are other ways to guide investments to rural areas without re-regulating or overtaxing business. Tax incentives for rural investment, for instance, have worked in many countries. Removing all barriers to foreign investment and directing such capital to low-wage areas can also help.

The election taught India's leaders not to neglect the prosaic tasks of bringing roads and power to villages as they also grow its sophisticated knowledge industries, such as software.


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