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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 38-51

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South Asia Faces the Future

India's Multiple Revolutions

Sumit Ganguly

Against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the war in Afghanistan, world attention in the final months of 2001 focused with unprecedented intensity on the politics of South Asia. The region's two principal states, India and Pakistan, despite their professed support for the U.S. actions against Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terrorist network, and the Taliban, in fact adopted markedly different positions. India, having sustained parliamentary democracy with but one 20-month hiatus since independence, lent near-total support to the efforts of the U.S.-led antiterror coalition. Apart from a few left-wing critics, a corporal's guard of opportunistic opposition politicians, and segments of India's 150-million-strong Muslim community, the vast majority of Indians expressed support for American goals. Such a response was a far cry from the days of the Cold War, when most U.S. military actions aroused suspicion all across the political spectrum. In the wake of the September 11 attacks and India's own experiences as a target of terrorism (some of it Islamist-inspired), both the government in New Delhi and the populace at large found themselves sharing U.S. concerns about the curse of global terror.

The situation in Pakistan, much popular commentary notwithstanding, was markedly different. Pakistan became an antiterror ally reluctantly, having chosen to support the United States only because of a lack of better options. Faced with his country's overwhelming external debt of US$37 billion and without any prospect of economic recovery absent outside help, Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf threw his nearly unqualified support behind the United States in the hope of obtaining financial relief. The exigencies of the war against al-Qaeda [End Page 38] and bin Laden required U.S. policy makers to overlook at least temporarily the many shortcomings of the Pakistani polity. At the time of this writing in early December 2001, it remained unknown whether the United States would press for democratic reforms in Pakistan once the goals of the antiterror campaign in Afghanistan were met.

In contrast to its neighbors, India presents a political, social, and economic picture that is mostly positive, despite some lingering problems. Since the 1970s, India has made a transition to capitalist agriculture without the use of coercion. The country has also demonstrated an extra-ordinary capacity to cope with the rise of ethnoreligious fervor within a democratic context. Other trends suggest the deepening and broadening of political participation and the electoral franchise. Altogether, the changes add up to no less than a set of revolutions--political, social, economic, and military. Through it all, and despite important setbacks, it seems safest to predict that India will manage to steer a course that will deepen democracy, keep the public sphere free of systematic exclusion on the grounds of religion, achieve at least modest economic growth, and safeguard national security.

The shifts under way in India will usher in a new socioeconomic and political order, and in doing so will challenge both popular and scholarly accounts which have long suggested that democracy in India is tenuous because the country's welter of ethnic groups makes it ungovernable, and because its weak state is incapable of implementing drastic policies of agricultural transformation. 1

The changes that are sweeping India can be traced to factors both structural and contingent. The transformation of the Indian political order has deep roots. Unlike most postcolonial states, India made a successful transition to democracy. The British colonial heritage alone does not constitute a sufficient explanation, for if it did then Pakistan would be as firmly democratic as India, as surely it is not. For a fuller understanding of democracy's success in India, we must look to the ideological predilections, organizational structures, and elite choices of the mainstream nationalist movement.

The Road to Modern India

As is well known, independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64), contributed much to the evolution and consolidation...