At midnight on August 15, 1947, a new nation was born on a subcontinent ripped apart by a bloody partition. Independent India came into being as flames blazed across the land, corpse-laden trains crossed the new frontier with Pakistan, and weary refugees abandoned everything to seek a new life. A less propitious start for a fledgling nation could scarcely be imagined.
Yet, six decades later, the India that emerged from the wreckage of the British Raj is the world’s largest democracy, poised after years of rapid economic growth to take its place as one of the giants of the twenty-first century. A country whose very survival seemed in doubt at its founding offers striking lessons in constructing, against all odds, a working democracy.
No other country embraces such an extraordinary profusion of ethnic groups, mutually incomprehensible languages, religions, and cultural practices, as well as variations of topography, climate, and levels of economic development. In 1947, India’s leaders faced a country with a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees worth of property damage, and the wounds of sectarian violence still bleeding. Given this, and the challenges of administering a new country, integrating the “princely states” into the Indian Union, and reorganizing the divided armed forces, they could have been forgiven for demanding dictatorial powers.
But India made a strength out of its major weakness. To the American motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” India could only counter, “E Pluribus Pluribum.” Instead of suppressing its diversity in the name of national unity, India acknowledged its pluralism in its institutional arrangements: all groups, faiths, tastes, and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun.
This wasn’t always easy. India suffered caste conflicts, clashes over the rights of different linguistic groups, religious riots (mainly between Hindus and Muslims), and separatist threats. Despite many stresses and strains, India has a remained a freewheeling multi-party democracy – corrupt and inefficient, perhaps, but nonetheless flourishing.
It helped that India’s founding fathers, from Mahatma Gandhi on, were convinced democrats. India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spent his political career instilling in his people the habits of democracy: disdain for dictators, respect for parliamentary procedures, and abiding faith in the constitutional system.
As prime minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the country’s infant democratic institutions by showing them respect, even deference. For example, on the one occasion that he publicly criticized a judge, he apologized the next day and wrote an abject letter to the India’s Chief Justice. Though there was no serious challenger to his authority, Nehru never forgot that he derived his power from India’s people, to whom he remained astonishingly accessible.
By his personal example, democratic values became so entrenched that when his own daughter, Indira Gandhi, suspended India’s freedoms in 1975 with a 21-month State of Emergency, she felt compelled to return to the Indian people for vindication. Having imbibed the most important of her father’s values, she held a free election, which she overwhelmingly lost.
Though Indian politics is hardly immune to the appeal of sectarianism, its people have come to accept the idea of India as one land embracing many differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume, and custom, yet still rallying around a democratic consensus. The heart of that consensus is the simple principle that you don’t need to agree all the time – except on the ground rules about how you can disagree. India has survived all the challenges that have beset it for 60 years because it has maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus.
For example, India permits all religions to flourish while ensuring that none is privileged by the state. This includes the granting of group rights, under which Muslims are governed by their own Personal Law, distinct from the common civil code. If America is a melting-pot, then India is a thali , a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but all belong on the same plate.
No one speaks seriously any more of the danger of disintegration. Separatist movements in far-flung places like Tamil Nadu and Mizoram have been quietly defused by a simple formula: yesterday’s secessionists become today’s chief ministers (the equivalent of provincial or state governors) and tomorrow’s opposition leaders.
Moreover, democracy in India is not an elite preoccupation, but matters most to the underprivileged masses. Whereas in the United States, a majority of the poor do not vote, – turnout in Harlem was 23% in the last presidential election – in India the poor turn out in great numbers.
As a result, the explosive potential of caste division also has been channeled through the ballot box, with the lowest of the low attaining high office. Mayawati, an “untouchable” woman, has ruled India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, as Chief Minister three times, and now enjoys a secure majority.
More generally, the logic of the electoral marketplace means that no single communal identity can dominate others. Three years ago, India, a country that is 81% Hindu, saw a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) make way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh), who was sworn in by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam). By contrast, the world’s oldest democracy, the US, has yet to elect a president who is not white, male, and Christian.
Democracy has sustained an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity. That idea has knit together a country that many thought would not survive, and whose 60th birthday is therefore well worth celebrating.