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  • India’s Democracy at 70

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 essays that follow explore triumphs and troubles alike as the authors ask how key democratic institutions are faring on the cusp of India’s eighth independent decade.

Ashutosh Varshney opens by examining democratic India’s political economy. The country has seen rapid growth since ending the “permit raj” in the early 1990s, he explains, and vows to boost economic vitality carry political weight. Yet the poor masses can and do vote, so programs to look after their welfare still rank high on the agenda too. Hindu nationalism’s appeal to politicians, he suggests, may lie in its power to shift the conversation, taking emphasis off welfare and distribution and placing it instead on culture and identity.

Christophe Jaffrelot addresses one of the most troubling aspects of India’s recent illiberal drift, the erosion of secularism and religious tolerance [End Page 39] as well-organized Hindu nationalists make deep inroads into public life. Both major parties have played on sectarian feeling, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the strongest affinity with and ties to Hindu nationalism. The implications for India’s Muslims and other minorities are ominous.

Louise Tillin tells the story of India as a federal republic in spite of itself. The founders of modern India, fearing dangers from without and within, wanted a unitary state with a supreme central government. But that was never really possible given India’s diversity and other circumstances, so what has emerged instead is a de facto federalism that on balance has helped to keep the country stable and aided democratic consolidation.

Eswaran Sridharan traces the structure and evolution of India’s party system, which has seen a steady erosion of the once-dominant position of the Indian National Congress and its family dynasty. This erosion led to the BJP’s crushing 2014 victory, the first time in three decades that any party had won an absolute majority in Parliament. And as Sridharan explains, the BJP has remained an electoral juggernaut through state elections earlier this year.

As Swati Ramanathan and Ramesh Ramanathan show, India’s founders made an exceptionally bold leap in opting to give the vote immediately to all adult citizens. In a novel historical analysis, the Ramanathans identify another paradox of India’s democratic achievement: The choice...