The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

India turns 60 today. In a speech that for Indians still resonates as powerfully as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for Americans, founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared that at midnight, India was keeping its tryst with destiny. While the world slept, India awoke to freedom.

Trouble is, India slumbered and lumbered for decades afterward. At the start of the 1990s, India was ailing internally, wracked by political turmoil, social ferment and economic stagnation. Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's government was on bad terms with all India's neighbours. Conflicts with Pakistan and China were debilitating distractions. Friendship with the imploding Soviet Union was a wasting asset, with the United States unthinkable.

Yet, India today is the world's fourth-largest purchasing-power economy, growing at 6 to 8 per cent annually and expected to account for more than 12 per cent of world economic growth in the next 15 years. Unlike China, India's economic performance is rooted in indigenous funds and enterprise, and likely to prove the more resilient and self-sustaining. China's diaspora has helped to make it the world's factory. India could become the world's technology lab with the help of overseas Indians, including Indo-Canadians.

India is the world's most populous, and the developing world's most important, democracy. And what flaws it has are regularly exposed by its own democratic institutions, in particular a vociferous civil society, an irreverent press, an inquisitive judiciary and vigorous opposition parties. Its election machinery, given the scale and complexity of the task, is the best in the world: Florida take note. If and when Australia and Canada become republics, they should study India's system of presidential election that combines democracy with federalism.

Meanwhile, multiethnic and multireligious India is the exemplar par excellence of power-sharing and political accommodation within the framework of democracy, federalism and secularism. Eighty per cent of the population is Hindu, and yet the heads of government, state and army have been at different times Sikh or Muslim, and the real power behind the throne is an Italian-born Catholic widow. Diversity and pluralism have no better champion.

Yet life remains nasty, brutish and short for far too many.

Poverty is horrific and illiteracy high, access to safe water and sanitation remains a pipedream for most and disease is endemic. The public sector is too large and parasitical, the labour market too rigid. Bribery is rampant, markets are underdeveloped, infrastructure is risible and the debilitating twin cultures of entitlements and subsidies constrain enterprise, initiative and merit, while distorting the price mechanism. Economic growth has yet to translate into significantly rising employment.

Electoral calculations deter governments from making decisions that are timely, forceful and final. So many different constituencies and interests must be appeased that what is necessary for national advancement gets progressively whittled down to what is possible for political survival.

Affirmative action programs for the lower castes and historically downtrodden tribes, meant to have been temporary, have mutated into a monster. Had they worked, they would have fallen into desuetude. Instead, they keep multiplying and expanding. Indians today are more caste conscious than they were at independence. Benefits are captured by the better educated, more articulate and more politically skilled elite.

The reality of coalition politics makes it difficult to curb caste-based set-asides. Since 1989, India has had either a minority or coalition federal government, dependent for continuance on the support of minor parties based in just one province or region. Some parties exploit caste identity as the most potent tool of mass mobilization.

Others are caught in the ideological time warp of dirigisme and autarky. Even with a dream team of reformers in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration, limp coalition politics trumps hard economic logic.

Relations with Pakistan, although less tense, are still subject to eruptions with a startling suddenness on the most unexpected of provocations. The festering Kashmir conflict fuels bouts of terrorism, drains resources and cumulatively acts as a drag on progress, albeit more so for Pakistan than for India.

Relations with China are the most cordial in decades, though both maintain a watchful eye over each other's intentions, capability and actions.

Against a history of animosity and rising global anti-Americanism, India enjoys excellent relations with the United States. The former clash between two self-righteous countries convinced of their own rectitude has been replaced by a deepening friendship between two peoples convinced of their exceptionalism.

There is no disease that has not afflicted it, no catastrophe it has not experienced, no disaster that has not befallen it. Yet India, a land of fabled and stoic resilience, always picks itself up and keeps going.

Happy 60th, India.

About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow
Topics: BRICS

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.