The surprise defeat of the BJP in last week's Indian election appears to reflect widespread resentment that the benefits of rapid technological innovation have reached only a relatively small section of society. This has implications for the whole developing world.
A few weeks ago, a leading aid expert described how, in the 1970s, he had spent three years in India working for the United Nations Development Programme. At the time, he had been engaged in helping India set up its first microelectronics research facility. But he became convinced that the country's real needs lay at the other end of the technological scale, in the diffusion of more effective agricultural techniques and other innovations to help the rural poor. Yet given the country's success in turning itself into a major industrial player in a range of key technologies, he admitted that he now felt he had been wrong.
Last week's surprise success of the Congress Party, headed by Sonia Gandhi, in India's general election suggests that he may not have been as wrong as he thought. For, according to many commentators, the rejection of the incumbent government — headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — appears to reflect widespread disillusionment with the way that the country's recent rapid economic and technological growth has been enjoyed unequally by different social groups.
It would, of course, be naïve to pretend that this is the whole story behind the election result. The success of the Congress Party in some of India's largest cities, including Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, immediately challenges the argument that it is the votes of excluded rural communities that have brought the Congress Party — the dominant political party in India since it achieved independence in 1947 — back to power after a gap of eight years.
Conversely there are several states that still face massive social and economic problems, but that voted for parties belonging to the ousted National Democratic Alliance, rather than opting for the pro-poor messages offered by the Congress Party. Those living in the world's largest democracy appear merely to have been exercising their right to protest against mismanagement by voting their rulers out of office.
Balancing innovation with basic needs
Despite all this, it would be equally naïve to believe that rejection of the BJP was a conventional protest vote against an incumbent government. There is considerable evidence to back the claim that many of those voting against the party and its political allies were expressing resentment at their exclusion from the country's economic miracle of the past decade.
Deregulation and privatisation, central planks in the BJP's economic policy, have certainly led to a boom in several new technology areas, and left many Indians considerably better off — some extremely. But relatively few of the benefits have filtered down to the rural poor, many of whom continue to lack basic human needs, such as clean water and adequate food.
To some extent, the protest was relatively apolitical. It is significant that two south Indian states threw out ruling parties of differing political complexions. Andhra Pradesh, with its capital Hyderabad, and Karnataka, with Bangalore, are vying to become global information technology (IT) powers. In doing so, however, both have become excessively focused on IT development, ignoring the conventional rural development that should have gone along in parallel.
The need for the latter is plain. For example, both states have experienced periods of severe drought over the past three years, with farmers committing suicide because of mounting debts. Voters in both states threw out their ruling party, underlining the need to focus on basic issues such as water for irrigation, rather than on attracting multinational investment and creating software parks.
The various platforms on which the Congress Party and its political allies appear to have won the election do contain various measures designed to redress this balance. And there is some evidence of its success in doing so.
It is notable that in Delhi, for example, the local Congress Party leadership that was re-elected has recently been responsible — actively prompted, admittedly, by campaigning groups such as the Centre for Science and Environment — for the introduction of rigorous new regulations on vehicle emissions. These regulations have already significantly reduced the city's air pollution problems, as well as the incidence of breathing problems and other associated diseases.
Such outcomes point towards a new form of participatory politics. Indeed, the Indian electorate's rejection of the self-congratulatory modernism in the BJP's election slogan, 'India shining', is eerily reminiscent of the rejection by the British electorate in the 1970s of a Labour Party that had raised the flag of "white hot technological revolution", and the subsequent growth of the environmental movement as a new political force.
The outcome has important lessons for other developing countries. For it is a reminder that although technological innovation is a necessary condition for social and economic progress, it is not a sufficient condition. Equally important are accompanying policies to ensure that the benefits of successful innovation are widely shared and experienced.
Forging an alternative development strategy
Last week's election poses an important set of challenges for the new Indian government. The country is not short of ideas about alternative technology strategies aimed directly at meeting the needs of the rural poor — or charismatic individuals to promote them.
During the political struggle for independence, for example, this was a key concern of Mahatma Gandhi. Today a wide range of organisations continue to pursue such strategies, ranging from the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation — which is already doing much to explore the potential of computers in rural development — to groups such as Development Alternatives, equally committed to exploring ways in which technology can directly aid the poor.
The task is to find ways in which such initiatives, many of which continue to operate on an essentially local scale, can become better integrated with the scientific and technological institutions that, in recent years, have been increasingly taking on the characteristics of Western industrial research systems.
Nor is the task unique to India. It would be an exaggeration to say that there is widespread disenchantment with the global knowledge economy. Nevertheless, it is true that there is growing resentment among those being asked to help share the costs of participation in such an economy, yet at the same time are excluded from its benefits. In issues that range from the application of intellectual property rights to the integration of biodiversity concerns with development strategies, there is growing evidence that solutions designed by the North are not always applicable in the South — and that alternative approaches are needed.
If India can now explore and develop some of these alternatives, ensuring firstly that they are based on a thorough comprehension of the underlying science, and secondly that they are capable of meeting the basic needs of the country's rural poor, it will have made a substantial contribution to the whole development community. Conversely there is a strong case for reviewing the future direction of IT policies in India, ensuring that these effectively complement and support rural development and poverty-reduction strategies, and not substitute for them.
And if the Congress Party can successfully tackle these two central issues, it will have demonstrated that last week's election was not merely a protest vote, but a democratic endorsement of a viable alternative development strategy that will be eagerly watched. And it might even see itself re-elected for a second term.