Triumph and Trouble: India at 70

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of India’s independence. The Journal of Democracy included a series of papers on this milestone in its July issue. We are re-printing the editor’s introduction to this cluster of papers, which can be found online at Project MUSE.

For seven decades now, India has been a fountain of challenges to democratic theories. When it became independent on 15 August 1947, India was one of the world’s poorest places in per capita terms. It was also one of the most linguistically diverse and culturally complex, with caste, ethnic, regional, and religious identities cumulating and cross-cutting in volatile ways. Social scientists thought democracy’s prospects dim in such a poor, divided country. Yet India has defied the odds.

It has held sixteen national elections amid conditions of free and open political competition, broken by just one short authoritarian spell in the 1970s. Ballotings across the vast subcontinent with its more than half a billion voters remain consistently well and fairly run—a stunning achievement that makes India a standout in the developing world. Yet too often, violence, fraud, and corruption mar public life, and a shocking proportion of the elected political class is under criminal indictment at any given time.

Since the advent of market-friendly reforms in 1991, India has shown real economic dynamism. Its economy has more than quadrupled in real terms since then, and per capita income has tripled. India is now growing faster than China, and may do better still if reform continues to open markets, reduce corruption, and prune overweening regulations.

At 70, the Republic of India remains a paradox. It is the globe’s biggest democracy, and one of the developing world’s oldest. It has a competent senior judiciary and a working federal system. Yet it does only a middling job at enforcing public integrity and the rule of law. Freedom House has been rating India as Free since the late 1990s, but many illiberal features persist. Indeed, illiberalism’s sway seems to be growing as Hindu-nationalist pressure mounts on civil society and vulnerable minorities such as Muslims, who make up about a seventh of the country.

The eight essays in the July issue explore triumphs and troubles alike as the authors ask how key democratic institutions are faring on the cusp of India’s eighth independent decade.