“A billion people, in a functioning democracy. Ain’t that something.” George W. Bush’s awestruck musings on the wonders of Indian democracy will be echoed all around the world this week.
Despite a sharp economic slowdown and a series of destabilising terrorist attacks, India’s 420m voters have just calmly voted the Congress party back into government, with a much increased majority.
In western capitals, admiration for the maturity of Indian democracy will be mixed with relief. There were fears that a government led by the rightwing BJP would take a more confrontational line with Pakistan – widening the conflict in south Asia in new and dangerous ways. Investors also seem to be impressed. The stock market shot up 17 per cent in the wake of Congress’s victory.
Political scientists have spent years demonstrating that democracy rarely survives in poor countries. India is a triumphant exception to this rule. Despite the fact that a quarter of its population live below the poverty line, the country has been a functioning democracy for almost the entire period since independence in 1947.
Indian democracy is indeed a wonder to behold. But this fact can lead to some unwarranted starry-eyed conclusions about the country. At this moment of euphoria, four common notions about Indian democracy deserve to be doused with a little scepticism.
First, it should be remembered that the country’s democracy is not always a beautiful sight. Manmohan Singh, the 76-year-old prime minister who has just won re-election, is a charmingly intellectual and courtly figure. But while Mr Singh is an impeccable frontman, the country’s politics has a much sleazier and more disreputable side.
In most countries when politicians are slammed as “criminals” this is simply vulgar abuse. In India, it is often the literal truth. The British public, currently hyperventilating about expenses fiddles in the UK parliament, might be interested to know that 128 of the 543 members of the last Indian parliament had faced criminal charges or investigations, including 83 cases of murder. In a poor society, gangsters can and do use muscle and money to force their way into parliament.
Second, just because India is a democracy, it does not follow that it will automatically side with fellow-democracies around the world. Mr Bush’s interest in Indian democracy was more than purely intellectual. The former president made a conscious decision to form a strategic alliance with India – and to cut the country a special deal over nuclear weapons – because he felt that democracies should be natural allies.
The Americans are carefully building a new special relationship with democratic India, partly to counterbalance authoritarian China. It is certainly true that relations between the US and India have been getting steadily warmer, driven by commerce, Indian immigration to America, the English language and – to a degree – common values.
But India is a major power with its own interests and its own distinct take on the world. It will not automatically fall into line with western policy, whether on sanctions against Iran or a world trade deal. And if realpolitik dictates, India is perfectly capable of cosying up to a dictatorship, such as the Burmese military junta.
The sleazy side of Indian democracy has led to a third common notion – popular in the authoritarian parts of Asia: the idea that democracy imposes a sort of tax on India. For many years, it was held that India suffered from a “Hindu rate of growth” because of its inefficient government. Growth in recent years, which has increased to an average of 9 per cent, should have put paid to that idea. But it is still true that, for all the virtues of its political system, Indian governance has failed hundreds of millions of people. Rates of poverty and illiteracy are much higher in democratic India than in authoritarian China.
Euphoria about modern India has led to a fourth mistaken idea: the notion that democracy has given the country a deep and unshakable stability. It is certainly true that the political future of China looks more uncertain and alarming than that of India, Asia’s other great subcontinental nation. But India still faces serious threats to its internal stability. The Indian Premier League is a new cricket tournament that has demonstrated the country’s growing wealth and cultural power by drawing in the best players from all over the world. However, the threat of terrorism is now so severe that this month’s tournament had to be relocated to South Africa. The country’s parliament and most prestigious hotels have come under attack in recent years.
While terrorism can be blamed on outsiders, India is also facing a serious internal insurrection. The notion of Maoist guerrillas roaming the countryside sounds like it belongs to another age – and is certainly at odds with the image of a modern India of commuter airlines and high technology. But over the past five years the Naxal insurgency has grown in strength – attacks on trains, mines and industrial sites are on the rise.
It is indeed marvellous that a country that is so large and so relatively poor can manage a peaceful, democratic transition. The new Indian government should also be able to use its stronger majority to renew the process of economic reform. But there are still some unappealing realities just behind the beautiful facade of Indian democracy.
FT.com / Columnists / Gideon Rachman - Indian democracy has an ugly side