Why India is at a crucial crossroads

Protests against nuclear bomb in India A society of inflating expectations is expressing frustration with democracy

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For India's founders, political freedom was their great prize.

Yet decades on, what that freedom has delivered measures up poorly for many.

For India's business elites eager to compete with China, for the middle classes fed up with corruption, for radical intellectuals, for desperate citizens who have taken up arms against the state - democracy in India is a story of unravelling illusions.

Democratic politics itself has come to be seen as impeding the decisive action needed to expand economic possibilities.

In a society of swiftly inflating expectations, where old deference crumbles before youthful impatience, frustration with democracy is perhaps not surprising.

The citizenry's ire expresses perhaps instinctively something that India's government, caught in inertial routines, is in danger of missing. Societies are at their most vulnerable when things are improving - not when they are stagnant.

Sliver of time

Yet the gathering pace of history in India has made political judgement more, not less, important.

Opening of a luxury goods showroom in India India will have only a matter of years in which to seize its chances

An India on the move cannot avoid choices.

The policy choices India will need to make over the coming decade - about education, about environmental resources, about social and fiscal responsibility, about foreign relations - will propel it down tracks that will become difficult to renounce or even revise.

These choices will determine how India handles the daunting tasks it faces.

These include managing the largest-ever rural-to-urban transition under democratic conditions, and working to develop the human capital and sustain the ecological and energy resources needed for participatory economic growth.

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It's a troubling irony: political imagination, judgement and action - the capacities that first brought India into existence - seem to have deserted it”

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They will also determine how ably India can contend with powerful competitor states, contain a volatile neighbourhood, and navigate a fluid international arena where capital is fly, and where new, unforeseen threats and risks are facts of life.

It's an agenda that would test any society at the best of times.

But in India's case, these tasks will have to be achieved under severe time and resource constraints.

India will have only a sliver of time, a matter of years, in which to seize its chances.

Whether it is able to do so will depend less on India's entrepreneurial brilliance or technological prowess or the cheapness of its labour, and above all on politics.

Yet, at this historical moment when emergent possibilities and new problems are crowding in, the transformative momentum of India's politics seems to have dissipated.

It's a troubling irony: political imagination, judgement and action - the capacities that first brought India into existence - seem to have deserted it.

Poisonous politics

Democracy, the distinctive source of modern India's legitimacy has, to many, become an agent of the country's ills - and drives some to put their hope in technocratic fixes.

Indian parliament India requires renewed political imagination to head off disaffection

Today, in many parts of the country, the identity wars that engulfed India during the 1990s - when religion and caste advanced as the basis of claims to special privileges - seem to have played themselves out.

The conventional view is that India's economic surge has stilled those fights. And although there is some truth in that explanation, it's too partial. It doesn't address, for instance, why one of India's most-developed and fast-growing states, the calendar girl of big business - Gujarat - is also the purveyor of India's most chauvinistic and poisonous politics.

In fact, what has - at least for an interval - calmed such conflicts has been the workings, however rickety, of democratic politics.

It's the capacity of India's representative democracy to articulate - and even to incite - India's diversity, to give voice to differing interests and ideas of self, rather than merely to aggregate common identities, that has saved India from the civil conflict and auto-destruction typical of so many other states.

Consider for a start the ragged history of India's regional neighbourhood: though populated by smaller and more homogenous states, their desire to impose a common identity has broken them down.

What has protected India from such a fate is not any innate Indian virtue or cultural uniqueness.

Rather, it is the outcome of a political invention, the intricate architecture of constitutional democracy established by India's founders. Democracy's singular, rather astonishing achievement has been to keep India united as a political space.

And now that space has become a vast market whose strength lies in its internal diversity and dynamism.

A woman selling flags in an Indian city India must manage the largest-ever rural-to-urban transition under democratic conditions

It is that immense market, of considerable attraction to international capital, which is now India's greatest comparative advantage - and one that makes it a potential engine of the global economy.

In the years ahead, whether the old identity battles of the 1990s stay becalmed will to a large extent depend on the capacity of India's political system to sustain and spread the country's new growth.

Rising disparities - in income, wealth and opportunity - are a global fact, but they can be particularly acute in growing economies.

For 21st century India, as economic growth spreads unevenly over the landscape, the big questions will turn on the disequalising effects of economic transformation.

This is not a question that any society - democratic or despotic - has been able to solve, let alone any rapidly growing society.

The search for alternatives to market capitalism inspired the great revolutionary and reformist movements of modern history.

Sitting duck

Those movements haven't fared too well: but the living conditions that gave rise to them remain as intense and painful as ever, not least in the world's two major growth economies, China and India.

A school in India Rising disparities in income, wealth and opportunity can be acute in growing economies

Part of what it must mean, therefore, for states like India and China to take their place as major world powers, rests on their ability to invent better alternative models of market capitalism.

For India, developing such options is a priority in coming years.

It's imperative for India's economic future that the global disaffection with market capitalism doesn't take wider hold in the country. Most people in India remain hopeful that their turn will come. Yet, as events of recent weeks have reminded us, tolerance for disparities, for inequality, can shift very suddenly.

In India's case, just as six decades and more of democracy have broken down age-old structures of deference and released a new defiant energy, so too years of rapid but uneven growth may quite abruptly dismantle the intricate self-deceptions that have so far kept India's grotesque disparities protected from mass protest.

As the Indian political classes exercise their populist instincts, corporate India, heady with new opulence, lately comports itself like a well-plumed sitting duck.

Without renewed political imagination and judgement, the disaffection and alienation of those who are being left out or actively dispossessed by rapid growth could change the course of India's history.

Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and Director, India Institute, King's College London, and is the author of The Idea of India, which will be published with a new introduction as a Popular Penguin in January 2012.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    My article below has a typed error. Please ignore the last word Britain. I forgot to delete it. The last sentence should read as "It is our worst enemy."

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I have read quite a few comments related and not-related to this article. Like any other colonial rule in history Britain is a mixed bag. Personally I do not like emphasizing the negative and would like bygones to remain bygones. Let us all shake hands in good faith and move forward in eradicating the scourge of poverty and caste. It is our worst enemy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    It is hard for the Indians to believe that recent development in India is a result of British rule. There can be a few social reforms which can be attributed to the British rule; however, indigenous people led to major social reforms. Poor Indians paid tax for essential commodities in British rule. Those commodities are still not taxed even in modern India!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Indian democracy is messy. But the alternative is messier. Someone remarked about warring states had there been no Brits. Today that isn't the case purely because of mutual economic benefit. This collective economic strength exists because of India's democracy. For e.g. many economic disputes btwn states are resolved because of the recognised authority of the Supreme court, a pillar of democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    If not for the British rule, India would not be the country that we know of today, but instead would be a group of warring nations. Singapore (with no natural resources) became independent around the same time as India and has shot up economically while India is only catching up. Instead of blaming others, India should sort out her own problems (like corruption) and unleash her potential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Flawed article. It seems that the author of this article is commenting about India in 1970s. After the measures taken in early 90s to open the economy, things have changed significantly. This is not an attempt to say that things are ‘’ideal’’; however, the scenario is much better than the one portrayed in this article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @72 Its no rocket science understand the picture. It would suffice to see what India was before the nation-wide plundering by brits, and after.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Things like corruption, population, pollution, illiteracy are not the causes that ail India; these are just the symptoms. The real cause of of India's problem is rejection of politics by the so called educated class. Things will only change for good when good people with good policies enter politics and lead from the front.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    @72 May we would not have had rail roads and post offices if the british did not come, we would definitely would have had a more pleasant existence

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Can we please be fair about facts:

    Famine in India: there were 14 in total between 11th & 17th Century (pre-British). During Brit rule: 44 famines, of which 18 in just 25 years! Zero since Brits left.

    India's economy (according to Brit economist, Angus Maddison): 22.6% of world income in 1700, & up to 27% under the last Indian rulers (same as the whole of Europe). After the Brits left: 3%!

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    %NYC With respect, to the extent that there was poverty, it resulted not from a failure of administration but the natural Indian problems of communalism and overpopulation. What about the tens of millions in poverty right now in the States as a result of depraved capitalism? Imagine 1.8 South Asians without the British legacy: a nightmare of nightmares. People like you should be grateful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    To those who blame Britain for India's current problems, think again. India's destiny is now in India's hands, & we are to blame for converting foreign imperialist rule into internal imperialist polity. However, no one can argue that the Raj cursed India with the worst of Victorian Britain - mass poverty, corruption etc when India had nearly always been a world leader throughout human history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    44. ScottNYC

    'Britain exported the worst of its national character to India. Class warfare, racism' blah blah blah

    Oh please, India existed before the British got there. How old do you think the caste system is. The caste system is designed to perpetuate poverty. Poverty is Indias problem

    'Poverty is the worst form of violence'. Mohandas Gandhi

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    "the author is completely wrong that the middle class is the one
    sick and tired of corruption. The great Indian middle class, in that desperate attempt to get ahead, is the one that fuels all the
    corruption. The upper class have deep enough pockets and connections that lets them wheel and deal, and the lower class have really nothing"

    to lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Needs lot of home-work before writing such kind of articles, missing its soul, may be this article should be revisited.

    "A society of inflating expectations is expressing frustration with democracy" - its an absolute immaturity...

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The masses are just awakening. Thanks to globalization and free media people have access to more information about the way govt functions and policies are made. Right to information act has contributed in a big way. People will no longer fall for the dangling carrot. They want action and want it now. Very interesting times. But the biggest problem still many still blame others for their problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    So - will the Indians beat the cowboys.

    I'm afraid the cowboys are still likely to win.

    The idea India can transform a culture which has been in place for a long long time in 'a sliver of time' is unlikely. Realistically

    Societies are not 'vulnerable when they are improving', they are vulnerable when they are declining. They are vulnerable when there is a shortage of food and work

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    This article is very badly written. The author appears to be trying to make some serious points but keeps degenerating into woffle and cliches. Please insist on a higher standard of written communications capability in your contributors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Greed and more greed ,In india ,in south africa.
    brutal materialism ,too many births , and on the ground the brutality of old "cultural values " it is savage ,dishonest and shortsighted, but at least we have started to talk about it,it is a start.but it is late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Comparisons with China are being made more frequently of late. The general feeling is development is impeded by democracy. Rule of law is critical and it appears that Demoracy sometimes impedes that too especially in India. Sweeping change is required and the Author is right in pointing out that patience is wearing thin among Indians who want more change and quickly


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