At the core of the debate stirred by India's 50th anniversary of independence is a paradox: How is it that this vast country, accounting for a sixth of humanity, has done so much less than many other developing nations to relieve the poverty, illiteracy and disease that afflict so large a portion of its population, when its celebrated system of parliamentary democracy places political power in the hands of the people?
In a decade that has seen a striking expansion of democracy in Eastern Europe, as well as in previously unpromising regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, something like a consensus has emerged, at least in the Western world, about democracy being the surest foundation for prosperity. But if democracy is the way forward, there is a need to understand why India, endowed with a political system that makes its rulers accountable, has not better served the needs of its people.
A 1993 survey cited by Shashi Tharoor, the Indian-born author of ''India: From Midnight to the Millennium,'' an affectionate but unsparing chronicle of India's woes, found that 58 percent of the respondents in the country's leading cities thought their problems could best be tackled by dictatorship. Anybody with experience of India will recognize a sentiment commonly voiced in certain quarters of India's elite, whose faith in democracy seems, paradoxically, less firm than among the poor, who have so little to show for their votes.
Tharoor recounts in his introduction how he endured his own crisis of confidence as he left India for postgraduate study in the United States in 1976, the year after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an emergency, suspended civil liberties and arrested thousands of opponents. For 21 months, until she called a general election and lost it, it was a dark hour for India's democracy, and for Tharoor, who wrote an article at the time condemning the political apathy -- he warned his readers about ''Indians who are not involved in India'' -- which he believed had made the dictatorship possible.
After graduating from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, Tharoor himself chose not to return to what he calls ''my beloved and impossible homeland,'' except for vacations and a journey in 1996 in his capacity as an official of the United Nations in New York, where he is the executive assistant to the Secretary General. In the book, he acknowledges that this has caused some people to accuse him of the lack of commitment for which he excoriated other Indians 20 years ago. ''I am, indeed, often asked,'' he says, ''how I can reconcile my passionate faith in India with my internationalist work for the United Nations.''
With a touch of self-righteousness, he tells us that there is ''no contradiction'' since, he says, India shares so much with the United Nations, both being places that bring together ''human beings of different ethnicities and religions, customs and costumes, cuisines and colors, languages and accents.'' True as this is, it would not be the first explanation of most of the Indians of Tharoor's generation -- a million now living in the United States alone -- who left India mainly to pursue living standards that became virtually impossible to achieve in the stagnant, socialized economy at home.
Still, Tharoor uses his book, the third he has written during his United Nations career, to show an encyclopedic command of what has gone wrong with Indian democracy over the past half-century. Few books in recent years, if any, offer such a comprehensive overview of what ails India, its politicians and its people; and few writers, apart from Nirad Chaudhury and V. S. Naipaul, benefit so obviously from the perspective Tharoor offers, that of an Indian with a profound empathy for his native culture, combined with the insight made possible by following India's progress from afar.
Even though he has kept in touch with