Indian polling staff match their individual electoral lists after collecting electronic voting machines and other election material at a distribution center in Amritsar on April 29, 2014 on the eve of Lok Sabha - lower house - elections. (Nariner Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the audio recording of the panel discussion about India's elections.
With the polls in India’s general elections set to close in just over two weeks, Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott said the country’s mood is governed by “a sense that there is a new opportunity coming” to energize the national economy and project greater influence on international relations.
Talbott spoke on a panel of veteran India analysts at Brookings’s Washington, D.C. center on Tuesday, April 29. Hosted by Brookings, the Asia Society Policy Institute, and McKinsey & Company, the discussion took as its starting point Reimagining India, a collection of essays on India’s future published by McKinsey.
Introducing the panel, Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s Ambassador to the United States, said, “If you look at what our political parties are doing in India, they are actually asking the voter to reimagine India: locally, regionally, nationally.”
“So whether it is the distribution of power or the nature of growth, whether it’s about vision or implementation, material issues or intangible values, [Reimagining India] actually captures the internal Indian conversation,” Jaishankar added.
Adil Zainulbhai, Senior Advisor to McKinsey India, commented that the election is shaping up to be pivotal in social terms. He observed that voter turnout is roughly 10 percent higher than in the last election, that political consultants from the U.S. have been advising Indian parties for the first time, and that social media and mobile technology have allowed an unprecedented level of political dialogue and engagement.
Foreign investors have begun to feel “some optimism about change,” said Chris Graves, Global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. “You’ve seen, recently, a wave of foreign direct investment start to come in.”
Graves noted the devolution of power in India from the national level to the state level should create more opportunities for states to attract foreign investment. He noted that Gujarat became known as “very business friendly” under Chief Minister Narendra Modi, now a candidate for Prime Minister with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“I think you’re going to see foreign investors give up on the notion of an ‘incredible India’ or a ‘credible India’ but go state by state, picking winners and losers,” Graves said.
Video: Foreign Investment in India Will Be State-by-State (4 min., 12 sec.)
Stephen P. Cohen, Senior Fellow with the India Project in Brookings’s Foreign Policy program, said he believes that if the BJP can form a government with Modi as Prime Minister, then Modi will attempt to remake India’s foreign policy.
“Modi has close relations with China, Japan, and South Korea, bad relations with the U.S.,” Cohen said. “He’s going to use the economic relationship he has with East Asia, especially China, to enhance India’s power elsewhere.”
Should Modi succeed at revitalizing India’s economy, Cohen added, “I think that’s going to give him more muscle and leverage in foreign policy.”
Video: Modi Would Transform India's Economy (3 min., 40 sec.)
Talbott said that the India-U.S. relationship has shown “some symptoms of bipolarity” and “needs to be smoothed out.”
“What we really need is a constructive, pragmatic, purpose-oriented sense of normalcy in the relationship,” said Talbott, citing his Brookings colleague Tanvi Madan.
“I think there are going to be a raft of opportunities if American statesmanship is handled properly going forward, and if India steps up to the plate and thinks of itself as a major league world power,” Talbott said later.
Cohen said he believes “American policy is going to have to reconsider its attitude towards India.”
“India’s going to attract more attention, and America has to adjust to that […] administratively and politically and strategically. And it hasn’t so far,” Cohen said.
Listen to the panel discussion on India's elections using the audio player below.