Is instability India's destiny?

Soutik Biswas
Delhi correspondent

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Supporters of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, Fab 2012Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Guha argues that democracy and nationhood in India face six complex challenges

Economist and former US Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith called India a "functional anarchy" some 30 years ago.

Now Ramachandra Guha, renowned historian and author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, says instability is India's destiny.

In a perceptive article in the latest issue of Prospect, Mr Guha explained why.

"Because of its size and diversity, because of the continuing poverty of many of its citizens, because it is (in historical terms) still a relatively young nation state, and because it remains the most recklessly ambitious experiment in history, the Republic of India was never going to have anything but a rocky ride.

"National unity and democratic consolidation were always going to be more difficult to achieve than in smaller, richer, more homogeneous and older countries."

'Sullen peace'

Mr Guha argues that democracy and nationhood in India face six complex challenges. They are:

  • Large sections of the population in the restive north-eastern states and in Indian-administered Kashmir want to break away from India
  • The festering Maoist insurgency threatens to further undermine territorial integrity in vast swathes of central and eastern India
  • Religious fundamentalism is "receding but by no means vanquished." A "sullen peace rather than an even-tempered tranquillity" prevails in the country
  • Public institutions are getting corroded. Political parties are increasingly resembling family firms; the police and bureaucracy are heavily politicised; corruption is rife and patronage triumphs over competence
  • Massive environmental degradation is promoting scarcity of resources and leading to discord and inequality. The poor suffer most from land grabs, deforestation and soil and water pollution
  • Growing economic inequities. One example: India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is worth more than $20bn, and his new home is a 27-storey high, 400,000 sq ft building in Mumbai, where 60% of the population live in grimy slums

"These cleavages reflect the revolutions underway: the national, democratic, urban, industrial and social," writes Mr Guha.

He believes these have all come at the same time and are making India unstable. In older democracies, like the US, these revolutions were staggered: the US became a nation in the 18th century, urbanised and industrialised in the 19th and granted equal rights in the 20th.

To a certain extent, the Indian experience is closer to the one in Europe, Mr Guha argues.

The population of the European Union's 27 member states is less than half that of India's 28 states and Europe is a union of convenience while India was the result of a long struggle for independence.

But as the European Union "sought to leave behind centuries of internal strife" so India "had to overcome centuries of religious conflict". And both also seek to "promote political unity with cultural diversity, economic federalism, constitutional law and democracy".

With the weakening of the state and the deteriorating quality of India's political leadership - "distinguished by weakness, sectarianism, dogmatism, authoritarianism and lack of proper credentials" - India is a considerably weak nation today.

So is India destined to remain unstable and survive, even thrive, because there is always a method to its madness? Or, as Mr Guha thinks, will a lack of capability and focus endanger India's future?