India's Democratic Challenge

Indian traders protest against a tax reform in Amritsar, March 30, 2005. Munish Sharma / Reuters


India is attempting a transformation few nations in modern history have successfully managed: liberalizing the economy within an established democratic order. It is hard to escape the impression that market interests and democratic principles are uneasily aligned in India today. The two are not inherently contradictory, but there are tensions between them that India's leaders will have to manage carefully.

Students of political economy know that market-based policies meant to increase the efficiency of the aggregate economy frequently generate short-term dislocations and resentment. In a democratic polity, this resentment often translates at the ballot box into a halt or a reversal of pro-market reforms. In the West, such tensions have remained moderate for at least three reasons: universal suffrage came to most Western democracies only after the Industrial Revolution, which meant that the poor got the right to vote only after those societies had become relatively rich; a welfare state has attended to the needs of low-income segments of the population; and the educated and the wealthy have tended to vote more than the poor.

The Indian experience is different on all three counts. India adopted universal suffrage at the time of independence, long before the transition to a modern industrialized economy began. The country does not have an extensive welfare system, although it has made a greater effort to create one of late. And, defying democratic theory, a great participatory upsurge has marked Indian politics, a phenomenon that is only beginning to be understood by scholars and observers: since the early 1990s, India's plebeian orders have participated noticeably more in elections than its upper and middle classes. In fact, the recent wisdom about Indian elections turns standard democratic theory on its head: the lower the caste, income, and education of an Indian, the greater the odds that he will vote. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition with the Indian National Congress at its core, counts on the lower social orders as its most important

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