At the height of Britain's empire in India, Rudyard Kipling famously declared, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Kipling thought the cultural gap between the colonizers and the colonized was unbreachable, but India's sophisticated independence movement, uniting Oxbridge thinkers and mass protests, proved him wrong. To be sure, Kipling's axiom still echoes in India today not for divides of geography, but class. Beneath the glitz of India's ebullient film industry or the sheen of chrome-and-glass IT centers, a vast, confusing and poor India lurches onward. It shares little with the country's jet-setting globalists, high-powered intellectuals or high-rolling industrialists. It knows more about enduring hardship than enhancing hardware. Yet, again in India, the twain do meet. Sixty years of freedom have bound all Indians, rich and poor, to a single commitment: democracy.
Visitors always seem to be astonished by the cacophony of the Indian street and the vibrant mix of ethnicities, cultures and religions that gives it life. With a sixth of humanity living within its borders, India is more linguistically diverse than Europe. But, apart from a few hiccups along the way, it remains one of the most stable and unified societies in all of Asia. "India has proven once and for all that countries which are poor and diverse can be democratic," says Rajeev Bhargava, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. "Now, the idea of India and democracy are inseparable."
The hurly-burly of India's politics is not for everyone. Elsewhere in Asia, many rulers have favored an orderly, sternly run society over a boisterous, democratic one. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore all grew their economies while keeping politics under a short leash. Today, China, the Asian giant whose shadow looms largest over India, tightly monitors public opinion and swiftly quashes dissent. The Chinese leadership vaunts harmony over all else, and points to the hundreds of millions it lifted out of poverty in just two decades as a vindication of its development-first policies.
It's an argument not easily dismissed. Even the fiercest supporters of Indian democracy cannot ignore its dark underbelly. May's elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh India's most populous saw dozens of candidates run despite holding criminal records; at least six even coordinated their campaigns using mobile phones while detained in prison. It's one thing if such behavior was an aberration, but, in India, this is par for the course. Corruption pervades all strata of society Transparency International ranks India worse than countries like El Salvador and Bulgaria in the corruption stakes mostly because the nation's bloated, unwieldy bureaucracies encourage it. And as graft stifles the poor, separatist insurgencies in Kashmir and the country's troubled northeast continue to simmer, asking tough questions of a nation that values popular sovereignty and self-determination.
But India perseveres nonetheless. "What's unique about Indian democracy," says Jay Panda, a young Member of Parliament from the eastern state of Orissa, "is that it has succeeded despite consistent predictions of its demise." Panda belongs to a regional party that leverages its seats in Parliament to ensure that his smaller state doesn't get the short end of the stick from federal policies. He sees himself as part of a "self-correcting mechanism" of the democratic system, which has, over time, learned how to accommodate diverse interests, enfranchise those on the margins and topple dynasts. In India, Panda believes, "the electorate is always the great leveler."
The May elections in Uttar Pradesh, though controversial, are a case in point. If the northern state were an independent country, it would boast the sixth largest population in the world. Its people, many impoverished, more than a few illiterate, went to the polls and voted the most unlikely of parties into power. The Bahujan Samaj Party was once a small, rural movement agitating for the rights of untouchables, or Dalits. This year, on a platform of social justice, it formed a coalition of candidates from across backgrounds of caste and creed and shunted aside the more established Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist BJP. "It was an important affirmation of Indian democracy," says Bhargava. "Through parliamentary elections, through group recognition, people who in other places would remain on the outside get co-opted. They realize that they have a stake in the process, that they have hope."
Indian democracy works because it welcomes everyone, identity politics and all, into its big tent a habit that it developed during the years of its freedom struggle. At the turn of the 20th century, the Indian National Congress, a body led by mostly Western-educated Indian élites who spearheaded India's decolonization, was a broad umbrella organization composed of many different camps. According to Gowher Rizvi, lecturer in public policy and head of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance at Harvard University, the debates and compromises thrashed out between independence leaders set the tone of the movement: "With this constant back and forth, Indian nationalism emerged hand in hand with a pledge to democracy."
A generation of extraordinary revolutionaries cemented this pledge. Homespun-clad Mahatma Gandhi planted the spirit of an inclusive, secular nationalism at the grass roots. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his contemporaries nurtured it following independence, building democratic institutions and a system of checks and balances that remain entrenched to this day, while neighbors Pakistan and later Bangladesh routinely threw out constitutions and fell under bouts of military rule.
That's why India's brief flirtation with authoritarianism was far less damaging than any junta-backed coup. Between 1975 and 1977, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in order to curb mounting disorder sparked by mass political protests. The press was censored, hundreds were detained, and thousands of rural poor were forcibly sterilized under a campaign orchestrated by Gandhi's son, Sanjay. But what didn't kill Indian democracy made it stronger. "Every grown child needs chicken pox in order to become immune to it," says M.J. Akbar, editor in chief of both the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers and a onetime MP. Gandhi called elections soon after the Emergency was lifted and irate Indian voters swiftly booted her government out the door.
The power and durability of the Indian ballot is significant, given that more than a few Asian governments claim liberal democracy to be an alien, Western invention. As a screen to justify top-down rule, the "Asian values" hypothesis suggests that human rights and universal suffrage matter less to Asians than attaining prosperity. But in the wake of the spectacular crash of numerous Asian markets in 1997, spurred by the cronyism of its regimes, Rizvi believes "there is not an iota of truth in that idea."
A trade-off between development and democracy can prove damaging. While China's economy soars, hundreds of millions of migrant workers and rural peasants have been left on the outside looking in. In India, says Rizvi, "growth may have been slow, but over a period of time it is more certain and sustainable because of its democracy." Some would dispute that assertion, but there's no arguing that economic policies and commercial decisions in India rope in a greater number of stakeholders than in many other places in Asia.
True, India, a noisy nation of over 1 billion voices, can't match the hyper-affluence of Singapore or China's titanic boom, but it shows that hearing those voices is the best long-term strategy. "Attila the Hun was great for his country's GDP also," says Akbar, "but the future of the world is not just about growth rates. It's about the principle of human equality." India is neither East nor West as Kipling saw it, but in its diversity and exuberance a reflection of something universal. It is, as Akbar concludes, "the first modern nation of the emerging world." A nation where, more than anything else, democracy rules.