India's Destiny Dilemma

As India's elections draw to a close, one thing is clear: its potential is undeniable—and so are its problems.

On August 15, India will mark the sixty-seventh year of its independence. The results of its national parliamentary elections will be official well before then. This country of kaleidoscopic diversity will have again transferred political power democratically and peacefully.

This may not strike Americans as exceptional, even if they’re reminded that elections have become routine at all levels of India’s polity and that turnout often exceeds what it is in the United States. So it’s worth recalling that in India’s early years there was much skepticism in the West about whether it would hang together, let alone build democracy.

India, a congeries of cultures, languages, and religions covers 3.2 million square kilometers. Only six countries encompass more terrain. Its population, now 1.2 billion, is poised to overtake China’s. Beijing’s draconian population-control program would be a nonstarter in democratic India.

There were other reasons to doubt that India’s experiment with democracy would succeed. The country was desperately poor, and what passed for a middle class was miniscule. Indians were largely illiterate, and their experience with democracy was brief and uneven. India lacked the characteristics scholars identify as preconditions for consolidating democracy. Its decision to adopt this form of politics, nonetheless, was as audacious as it was admirable.

So India has passed two fundamental tests it wasn’t expected to: it has stayed whole and preserved liberty and stability. Has it done well enough? No. India’s politics are marked—to a growing degree—by corruption; the power of money; political dynasties; and appeals to parochial loyalties, whether of caste, subcaste, religion, or language. Elected bodies contain knaves and criminals or those, whose qualifications are limited to good looks (Bollywood is deep into the political game) or athletic prowess.

Milan Vaishnav has discussed these dismaying realities in a recent op-ed; and you needn’t spend much time in India to see that he’s right. Yet such assessments lack comparative perspective. Indian democracy’s deficiencies may be doubly deplorable because India has many massive problems, particularly large-scale poverty. But the role of money, privilege, corruption, family connections, special interests and divisive appeals to subnational loyalties in politics is scarcely peculiar to India, and it is evident in the United States and other democracies. Americans’ dismay over this is clear from opinion polls showing that a majority of our citizens believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the coming generation won’t be as fortunate as we have been. Besides, Western democracies have had far more time to fix these problems. Yet they seem to be getting worse.

India tends to compare unfavorably to China in most assessments, and in economic performance, this verdict is justified. But for all the failings of their democracy, Indians enjoy basic freedoms that Chinese citizens lack, and China’s state-directed campaigns for modernization (the Great Leap Forward) or ideological purity (the Cultural Revolution) that killed tens of millions have no counterpart in India’s history. The Indian state has been brutal in places such as Kashmir, but its transgressions pale in comparison to Beijing’s.

Then there’s the army’s role in Indian politics. What’s extraordinary—certainly compared to other ex-colonial societies—is that it hasn’t had one. India’s soldiers stay in their barracks in peacetime. There hasn’t been an instance of what’s perennial in the politics of many developing countries: a military coup. India’s army has always been under strict civilian control.

Moreover, India’s political history lacks a Washington, Grant, Ike, Colin Powell, or Wesley Clark (for example). Military heroes are thanked for their heroism and, upon retirement, are expected to repair to their bungalows and clubs, sip scotch, and coddle their grandchildren. The closest India came to having a general as a contender for high political office was after the 1971 war against Pakistan. General Sam Manekshaw (a Parsi, it should be noted), the architect of India’s victory, became a national icon. But the love fest proved fleeting as a political matter. There were no cries of “Run, Sam, Run” or “Draft Sam” campaigns. Manekshaw was promoted to Field Marshal and retired to a bucolic hill station. The great warrior did what Indians always expect.

Don’t look to academic tomes for edification on India’s democratic success. The country contradicts the axioms and expectations of the “democratic transitions” literature. Paradoxically, some of the traits that made for skepticism about its democratic prospects proved to be advantages. This sprawling country houses what, in effect, are myriad civilizations organized largely as states that correspond to its numerous languages in a decentralized polity, albeit one that has some centralizing constitutional provisions.