Debating India

AMERICAN ANGLE

Exporting Election Expertise

Seema SIROHI

Wednesday 21 April 2004, by SIROHI*Seema

An Indian company is already gearing up to sell electronic voting machines to US state governments. Shouldn’t and couldn’t Indians be worldwide election consultants? The official hand holders, the last word on how to do it right...

It is show time in India. The great Indian elections are being staged, and, over the next three weeks, the bureaucratic machinery will roll from state to state in one of the most complex logistical events to be mounted anywhere in the world. Given the size of the country and the electorate, this road show could be a chapter in the Guinness Book of World Records. Since India does this well, it is time to market this expertise. Indians should and could be worldwide election consultants, the official hand holders, the last word on how to do it right. They could begin in Afghanistan where the government is struggling to hold elections in September and move beyond. Why not?

If security can be outsourced, so can elections. In Iraq, the US government depends o hundreds of private security contractors to fill the gap. The companies scout around the world for retired army officers to subcontract the work, luring them with high pay. Conducting elections is a much less hazardous enterprise. True, the establishment in Delhi will sniff at the idea, but then they sniff at everything. Think about it — in these days of discontent over outsourcing of jobs to India, the country must develop alternate plans and expand its niche in the market of ideas. And what’s wrong with this feel-good and extremely politically correct venture?

Indian election officers are experts with a half century of experience in implementing this tried and sacred measure of democracy. They can outsource their knowledge from Kabul to the Kremlin or wherever there is a deficit of democratic expertise. The neighbourhood itself has plenty of opportunities, to say nothing of lands further away. As Americans head towards their presidential election, India could send "election observers" to Florida to help out. An Indian company is already gearing up to sell electronic voting machines to US state governments. It is called the fellowship of democracy.

And it is no rocket science. The Indian foreign office and the Election Commission could easily begin by developing a concrete plan, a power point presentation, a logistics chart and a table of consulting fees. They could involve the United Nations. Badger their diplomats whose mandate it is to empower the voiceless. Pitch India as the ultimate expert on staging elections. A rapid deployment force of democracy. A one-stop shop of expertise to be set up quickly in distant corners of the world.

This merchandise could be a deft instrument of soft power and India would gain a voice outside the Security Council. It could develop an alternate soap box and use it to leverage some clout within. The reigning P-5 or permanent members can’t complain — how can democracies block a democracy from spreading democracy? Britain, US, Russia and France shouldn’t object. If China does, well, — it has zero credibility on the subject.

Indian diplomats and strategists say they want to be global players. They want to be consulted and taken seriously but they haven’t spelt out what measures would bestow the big power status. A seat in the UN Security Council? Too complicated and not likely in the foreseeable future. Besides, India hasn’t got anywhere using the fairness argument — essentially that it is unfair to keep India out of the Security Council because of its size, weight and voice. But there is no appetite among those who already sit at the high table to add new guests.

But why should membership in the Security Council be the most coveted badge of great power status? National influence can be exercised by other means. India must speak out on world issues, even take action and undergo an attitudinal change. Many Americans don’t understand what it is that India means when it says it wants to be a world power.Leon Fuerth, national security advisor to former vice president Al Gore, puzzled over this last week at a conference and asked with a hint of disdain: "Is being a world power defined as the equivalent of wearing long pants?" The topic was India and China as the rising powers of Asia. The United States has always taken China seriously but rarely India, despite the expendable rhetoric on being fellow democracies.

India wants great power status, yet, it is strangely reticent in taking on a leadership role. Even when it is thrust upon it. During the Clinton Administration the Americans wanted India to be one of the leaders of the "Community of Democracies," a concept developed by Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, to link and nurture emerging democracies. The Clintonites wanted New Delhi to be front and centre but there was no enthusiasm. Instead, there were questions and even mistrust that the Americans might be luring India into some nefarious plot. The mercurial Albright, whose Czech ancestry gave her a special feel for the Iron Curtain and its devastating weight, was disappointed to see India satisfied with so little. There are other examples of missed opportunities on the world stage.

If the government of India feels constrained in marketing the mechanics of elections complete with voting machines and strategy sessions, it could always outsource the work to the Bangalore Boys. They can convert government-think into real-think for starters.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Wednesday, April 21, 2004.

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