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How India beat the odds

The carnage of 60 years ago has given way to a country that embraces its plurality and reveres its democracy.

August 12, 2007|Shashi Tharoor | Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations undersecretary-general, is the author of "India: From Midnight to the Millennium" and "Nehru: The Invention of India." His new collection of essays on India, "The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone," will be out this week.

At midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, a new, independent India was born on a subcontinent racked with violence, ripped apart by a bloody partition. It came into being as flames blazed across the land, as corpse-laden trains crossed the frontier to and from the just-created nation of Pakistan, and as weary Sikh, Hindu and Muslim refugees abandoned everything they had ever had in one part of the region to seek the hope of a new life in the other. Circumstances less propitious for a fledgling nation could scarcely have been 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 21st century. An India whose very survival seemed in doubt during the conflagration of 1947 now offers striking lessons in democracy-building.

The odds against constructing a working democracy in India were great indeed. No other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages -- 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each -- the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices and the range of levels of economic development that India does.

In 1947, with as many as 1 million dead on both sides of the border, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees worth of property damaged and the wounds of sectarian violence still bleeding -- not to mention the challenges of administering a country newly freed from colonial rule, integrating the "princely states" into the new Indian union and reorganizing the divided armed forces -- India's leaders could have been forgiven if they had demanded dictatorial powers. Indeed, in many developing countries, nationalist leaders were to make precisely that argument, saying that only autocratic rule could weld a post-colonial shambles together into a modern state and claiming that the divisions that would be fanned by a raucous, multiethnic democracy would only impede development.

India went the other way: It made a strength out of its major weakness. To the American motto, "e pluribus unum," India countered, "e pluribus pluribum"! Instead of suppressing its diversity in the name of national unity, India acknowledged its pluralism in the way it arranged its own affairs: All groups, faiths, tastes and ideologies were to participate in the new system and contend for their place in the sun.

It wasn't always easy. India suffered caste conflicts, clashes over the rights of different linguistic groups, religious riots (mainly between Hindus and Muslims) and threats from separatists of various ethnicities. Despite many stresses and strains, including more than 1 1/2 years of autocratic rule during a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multiparty democracy -- freewheeling, rumbustious, sometimes corrupt and inefficient, but nonetheless flourishing -- India has remained.

It helped that India's founding fathers, from Mohandas K. Gandhi on, were convinced democrats. India's first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spent a political lifetime trying to instill the habits of democracy in his people: a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system.

As prime minister from 1947 to 1964, Nehru carefully nurtured the country's infant democratic institutions by showing them respect and even deference. To take just one example, on the one occasion that he publicly criticized a judge at a news conference, he apologized the next day to the individual and wrote an abject letter to the chief justice of India, regretting having slighted the judiciary. Though there was no serious challenger to his authority, he never forgot that he derived his power from the people of India, and he remained astonishingly accessible for a person in his position.

By his own personal example, Nehru imparted to the institutions and processes of Indian democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants. Perhaps the greatest threat to democratic rule came from, of all people, his daughter, Indira, who suspended India's freedoms with a state of emergency from June 1975 to February 1977 after a conviction on a relatively minor election fraud charge and mounting public disorder threatened her government. Yet, ultimately, she felt compelled to return to the Indian people for vindication, held a free election and lost it.

In India, democracy today is not an elite preoccupation. Whereas in the United States poor people are far less likely to vote than wealthy people -- just half of those with family income under $50,000 a year voted in the 2004 presidential election, as compared with about 78% of Americans earning $100,000 or more -- in India the poor turn out in great numbers, often spending hours in the hot sun waiting to cast their votes.

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