NORTH SUTTON, N.H. — India's failures are legion and impossible to ignore. Poverty and desperation abound. Infant mortality is unacceptably high. Schools and healthcare are substandard -- if available at all. Roads and other infrastructure are primitive or in poor repair. The Indian government seems unable to adequately protect the country's Muslim minority (about 12% of the population) from periodic pogroms, and violence against lower castes erupts regularly. Conflicts with Pakistan over Kashmir continue, made more alarming by the fact that both countries now possess nuclear weapons.
But despite these very real problems, most of what we read about India misses what is most remarkable about the country: its sheer survival. And as the United States attempts to shape a new government in Iraq, the lessons of India are perhaps worth considering, not least because the challenge Iraq faces -- keeping a multiethnic country whole without sliding into dictatorship -- is one that India, despite all its difficulties, has faced and overcome against considerable odds.
When India gained independence in 1947, it seemed too big and too diverse to hold together. Though a majority of the country's 400 million people were Hindus, there were Muslims, Christians (Protestants and Catholics), Jews, Jains, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. An array of languages (18 now have official status), thousands of dialects and a labyrinthine system of castes and sub-castes added to this bewildering complexity. Few outside India believed that such an unwieldy behemoth could remain a single country.
But the system has held together, and it has done so despite some fearsome shocks, starting with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi soon after Indian independence and continuing with the slaying of two prime ministers, three wars and numerous crises with neighboring Pakistan, the emasculation of democracy during the "emergency" proclaimed from 1975 to 1977 by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, widespread and devastating riots sparked by plans to declare Hindi the national language, and separatist movements of Muslims in Kashmir, Sikhs in the Punjab and Nagas and Mizos in India's remote northeast.
Not only has Indian polity proved sturdy enough to weather these shocks, it has done so without abandoning democracy. With the exception of Indira Gandhi's "emergency," there has not been an interruption in -- or even a real threat to -- democratic institutions. Political power in the country has been passed from party to party frequently in federal and local elections, and voter turnout is high. The military has remained thoroughly under civilian control. Furthermore, India has consistently allowed a free press -- in English and the many Indian languages. And a staggering array of civic groups promotes the interests of women, castes and language groups, professions and the environment. Labor unions engage in collective bargaining and strike regularly. Political demonstrations are a daily occurrence.
If the survival of India as a unified country is remarkable, the survival of its democracy is astonishing. When India became independent, it lacked any tradition of modern democracy. It had an abysmally low per capita income and a minuscule middle class, and most of its people were illiterate. Democracy, so social scientists tell us, cannot survive under such circumstances.
The standard explanation for how India has managed to reconcile diversity and unity while also fostering democracy invokes the country's colonial legacy. The British, so the explanation goes, transplanted their hallowed traditions, ideas and institutions of civil liberties and the rule of law.
Yet this account doesn't hold up on closer inspection. Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that most expansions of democratic rights in colonial India were not the products of benevolent tutelage but necessary and shrewd responses to the gathering momentum of an Indian nationalist movement. The main problem with crediting the British with India's success at democracy is that there is no shortage of former British colonies that, upon becoming independent, turned thoroughly undemocratic, with the military seizing power and ruling through naked force. Consider, for example, the post-colonial histories of Egypt, Iraq, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Burma. Consider, in particular, India's neighbor and cultural cousin Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for most of its existence.
There is no simple explanation for why India has not only survived but also maintained a fairly robust democracy. But what is clear is that the first could not have been attained without the other. A democratic order has been critical in preventing India's fragmentation.