India at 70

The World’s Biggest Democracy Celebrates Its Birthday

People celebrated India's Independence Day in Delhi, August 2017. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Seventy years ago, independent India was born. Having shaken off the yoke of the British Empire, the country embarked on what was—and remains—the world’s most radical democratic experiment. Never before had a nation with such a low per capita level of income extended universal voting rights to its citizens; throw in varied topography, unparalleled ethnic and religious diversity, the inheritance of a socially rigid and unequal caste system, and the fact that India resides in a fractious geopolitical neighborhood, and its flourishing democracy looks even more remarkable. Today, the country features more than 1,000 political parties. Women participate in the electoral process in larger numbers than their male counterparts. Historically disadvantaged groups, such as Dalits (formerly “untouchables”), are reshaping politics and gaining social mobility.

But the Indian democratic experiment is marred by a central flaw. Indian democracy has worked well during elections. But—as the historian Ramachandra Guha has noted—democracy between elections is much less robust. It is commonplace to observe that democracy is not just about voting, and it is in this respect that modern India is coming up short. The Indian democratic project is held back, in short, by ineffectual governance and a patchy record on civil liberties.

In part, the reason is that India’s democratic journey is an inversion of the standard Western process of democratization. In most examples of the latter, such as the United Kingdom, or even the United States, a reasonably strong and centralized state was in place before democratic norms and institutions were codified. This state had powers one associates with modern sovereign regimes: a monopoly on the use of force, an ability to extract tax revenue, and a system to deliver (basic) public services. In most historical Western examples, democracy was laid atop these foundations, even then, only brick by gradual brick. In the United States, for instance, women waited over a century for even the de jure right to the vote. India’s democratic journey is an inversion

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