Indian democracy


Even if China demonstrates impressive economic dynamism, demography and democracy give India a strategic edge. However, the traditional caste system and newfangled socialist ‘gains’ are hampering development. If the country manages to shake off these historic burdens and release the inherent entrepreneurship of the population, nothing can prevent India from rising to the superpower class.

The burden of tradition

Contrary to the experience of Japan and China, India has been divided or repressed for most of its history. The linguistic and cultural multiplicity has contributed to this unhappy condition. The incursion of Alexander the Great in North-Western India 327 BC sparked the rise of the domestic Maurya dynasty 321 BC; the domains of King Asoka (ruled 273–232 BC) extended over most of India. The Maurya kingdom collapsed in 185 BC and although foreign invaders from the Northwest periodically dominated the country, only Britain was able to unify all the states of the subcontinent under its colonial rule.

Religious continuity partly compensated for the political disorder. While the Japanese and the Chinese are next to agnostics, in India life and religion have been woven together even if the ruler never was deemed divine, as in Japan and China. Hinduism is a syncretistic religion which defies all description – multifarious, adaptable and tolerant but extremely resilient. Buddhism is a magnificent attempt at refining the central ideas of Hinduism, above all the doctrine of transmigration of the souls, and it became the state religion under Asoka. It did not last in India but emigrated to neighboring countries such as Tibet, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar). China and Japan, too, have been strongly influenced by Buddhist thought.

During the eighth century, Islam was catapulted to India by trade and conquest. Muslim conquerors and rulers dominated the political scene for extensive periods but Islam remained a minority faith. Despite the sharp religious divides, the life style and general attitudes are surprisingly homogeneous all over the subcontinent, irrespective of religion and citizenship. The caste system is a Hindu institution, for sure, but conservatism and a resigned fatalism are the hallmarks of existence throughout. Therefore the success of the Indian Diaspora, almost on a level with the Chinese, is all the more remarkable.

An adequate democracy

India received its independence from Great Britain in 1947. The secession of Islamic Pakistan caused large population movements and led to terrible bloodshed. Yet India could establish an adequate democracy. The administration and the judiciary had long been manned mainly by Indians and the power transfer was conducted in good faith. The actual introduction of democratic self-government was conducted without birth pangs – a next to unique performance. India has preserved political stability despite social tensions and a swift population increase.

In contrast, the economic development has been disappointing, particularly in comparison with Japan and the South-East Asian tigers; in the last decades China too has outperformed India. From the very beginning, a socialist doctrine diverted the economy on the wrong track. The outcome was exaggerated state intervention, subventions, trade barriers and an incredible bureaucracy. Market forces were subjugated and domestic enterprises were sheltered against foreign competition. Political wangling and outright corruption became the chief competitive means. A cautious liberalization has already brought positive results but the resistance to change is fierce and the caste system is still a drag.

The long British rule laid the foundation for Indian democracy. Nevertheless it is astounding how painlessly more than a billion people, most of them very poor, can manage their common affairs under proper democratic law and order, excepting sporadic violence triggered by tensions with religious minorities – Muslims and Sikhs. Even the poorest Indian shares an old cultural heritage, an identity that obligates; cultural norms keep violence under control. All in all, India is an encouraging example of the viability of democracy in less developed countries.

A potential superpower

India has close to 1.1 billion inhabitants and will probably surpass China around 2035 as the most populous country in the world. India is first in class among democratic less developed countries, but the economy has been lagging. While China after Mao’s death discarded the obsolete Marxist dogmas, India is still hamstrung by considerable socialist ballast. Plenty has been heaved overboard but the economy is still trammeled by deep-seated political prejudices.

Astoundingly, India enjoys less freedom of trade than China. In many sectors, industry is regulated in minute detail which provides feeding ground for an army of corrupt officials. The labor market is overregulated and inflexible. The bureaucracy is overstaffed and ineffective; everything takes much more time than in China. Foreign investment is on the increase but still only a fraction of the capital entering China.

Despite these handicaps, India has started to close the gap between its own and the Chinese economic growth rate. The countries have many things in common. The green revolution has secured the production of food, but the backward agriculture still employs the major part of the population. Cheap labor is obviously the main competitive weapon even if the supply of educated manpower is soaring. In both countries, the infrastructure is struggling but even so they have managed to maintain respectable armed forces, including nuclear weapons.