India’s Ambitious Democracy

In the spring of 1947, the eve of India’s independence from the U.K., the leaders of its independence movement made the fateful decision for their new country to be a secular, constitutional republic with suffrage for every adult citizen: more than 170 million in total. Overnight, India became the world’s largest democracy, a distinction it retains to this day, with an incredible 900 million eligible voters (nearly three times the total U.S. population).

The logistics of Indian democracy were daunting: at the time, some 85% of its electorate were illiterate, requiring political parties to get clever with the use of pictographs and symbols to communicate their platform. Tens of thousands of civil servants worked for two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951; the voter lists would be 200 meters (656 feet) thick. Today the list is five times that amount.

India’s democracy may be deeply flawed and corrupt — some one-third of its parliamentarians have pending criminal cases against them, to name but one example — but it has managed to keep one of the world’s largest most diverse countries — with dozens of languages, four major religions, and hundreds of ethnic groups — into a cohesive and mostly free society.

In the future, if not already, India will represent a vital counterbalance to the Chinese authoritarian model that is already holding sway in much of the world. Indians will have to prove that their messy and dysfunctional political system can work. At around 250 years, the United States is still a work in progress: given what India’s ancient civilization has managed to accomplish despite millennia of baggage, I am optimistic.

Source: The Economist

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