The Indian Success Story Explained
July 12, 2012
THE REPUBLIC OF INDIA is the most reckless political experiment in human history. Never before was a single nation constructed out of so many diverse and disparate parts. Partitioned at birth on the basis of religion, India now has almost as many Muslims as the Muslim homeland of Pakistan. It has more Christians than Australia, more Buddhists than Tibet, more Sikhs, Jains, and Parsis than any country in the world. The Hindus, nominally the religious “majority,” are divided into tens of thousands of endogamous castes and sects. Meanwhile, the extraordinary linguistic diversity of India is represented on the country’s currency notes, with the denomination—50 rupees, 10 rupees, and so on—written in seventeen languages, each with a distinct script.
This is an unnatural nation, as well as an unlikely democracy. Never before was a population so poor and so illiterate asked to vote freely to choose who would govern it. Unlike in the West, where the franchise was granted in stages, the Indian constitution immediately gave the vote to every adult regardless of caste, class, education, or gender. This was an act of faith, greeted with widespread disbelief: writing of the first general elections, held in 1952, a prominent Indian editor observed that they were the “biggest gamble in history.” It was a gamble that seems to have paid off—there have been fourteen general elections since, each the greatest democratic exercise in human history (with some four hundred million voting in the last iteration in 2009), as well as regular elections in states more populous than France or Germany.
Owing to its counter-intuitive, even miraculous nature, the historical and ideological origins of the Indian Revolution have not been systematically studied by scholars. A study by political scientists of more than one hundred countries found that India alone, of the world’s functioning democracies, did not fit the conventional democratic parameters of cultural homogeneity and economic prosperity—it was, in this respect, an outlier. Where social science cannot account for this puzzle, historians (chiefly but not exclusively British) seek to explain it in terms of a bequest, willed or accidental, from the previous rulers of the country. India is now democratic, it is said, because the British were modern, open-minded colonialists, unlike the French and the Dutch and the Portuguese and (especially) the Belgians.
The problem with this argument is factual as well as counter-factual. To take the latter objection first: if the British promoted democratic values and institutions, why has democracy failed to take root in other of its colonies in Africa and Asia (not least in Pakistan, which has a similar legal and institutional history to India’s)? The truth is that Indians were prepared for democracy by the patient hard work of several generations of homegrown reformers and activists. The Indian National Congress—founded in 1885, some years before the British Labour Party—worked hard, even heroically, to bring Indians of all castes, religions, and ethnicities into its ambit. The Congress, as the historian Mukul Kesavan has remarked, was a “Noah’s Ark of nationalism,” which sought to bring every species of Indian on board. Its successes were significant but not total—while it remained the most influential party until independence in 1947, its hegemony was challenged by parties representing the Muslim interest, the orthodox Hindu interest, and the lower-caste interest, as well as by parties run on more strictly ideological lines, such as the Indian Liberal Party and the Communist Party of India (which was founded four years after the Bolshevik Revolution).
These political parties pressed hard for concessions from the British. Indians were allowed, slowly and grudgingly, to participate in municipal government, to be elected to legislative councils that were still dominated by non-elected Europeans, and finally, in 1937, to achieve a measure of self-government by running ministries in the different provinces of the Raj (albeit under the overall control of a British governor). Over a period of sixty years, these parties—run, staffed, and led by Indians—cultivated habits of argument and deliberation on matters of public policy that were essential training for political independence as well as for full-fledged democracy.
THE PRE-HISTORY OF Indian democracy featured individuals as well as institutions, the most consequential of whom lived and worked in Western India. Between 1875 and 1910, the city of Poona (now Puné) was in the vanguard of social reform. Gifted and influential activists such as Jotiba Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak campaigned vigorously for, among other things, the abolition of caste prejudice, equal rights for women, the promotion of Hindu-Muslim harmony, the spread of education among the poor, and complete independence from British tutelage.
In 1915, Mohandas K. Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. By the end of the decade he had emerged as the major leader of the national movement. Outside India, Gandhi is revered for pioneering non-violent techniques of social protest, known assatyagraha—methods that have shaped the civil rights struggle in the United States, the anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe, and, most recently, movements for democracy in the Middle East, where Gandhi’s name is regularly invoked and handbooks distilling his ideas on satyagraha are widely distributed. But Gandhi was as much a fighter against discrimination within as against oppression from without. He made the abolition of untouchability—which was to Indian society what racial segregation was to the United States, namely, a system of at times barbaric discrimination—a condition for the achievement of political freedom.
Born in an upper-caste home, Gandhi attacked untouchability from above. But his work was complemented and deepened by the attack on the caste system from below, led by the visionary lawyer and economist B.R. Ambedkar. The thirteenth child of an impecunious soldier, and an untouchable himself, Ambedkar overcame his disadvantages to take doctoral degrees at Columbia and the London School of Economics, as well as qualifying as a lawyer in London, before returning to India to work with and for his people…