India will turn 60 on Wednesday. In a speech that for Indians resonates as powerfully as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address for Americans, nationalist leader and 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. Many positive accomplishments and achievements notwithstanding, the socialist legacies of the Nehru era (1947-64) were an anachronistic drag on India realizing its full potential as a dynamic major economic power. Conflicts with Pakistan and China were debilitating distractions. Friendship with the imploding Soviet Union was a wasting asset; with the United States it was unthinkable. The collapse of the Soviet Union left India alone and palely loitering on the world stage. By 1989, Rajiv Gandhi's government had the dubious distinction of being on bad terms with all neighbors.
Today, India plays an important exemplar role as the world's most populous and the developing world's most important democracy. Every so often Indian democracy looks to be in a somewhat soiled state, its citizens disillusioned and its image abroad tarnished. Yet the most positive feature of this is the manner in which the flaws of India's rulers have been exposed almost always by the workings of India's own democratic institutions, 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, please take note. If and when Australia and Canada become republics, they should study India's system of presidential election that combines democracy with federalism.
Over the past 15 years, India finally overcame its "Hindu rate of growth" and its diplomatic influence and prestige increased commensurately. Using purchasing-power parity, India is now the world's fourth-largest economy. The economy is expected to grow by 6 percent to 8 percent annually and account for more than 12 percent of world's economic growth in the next 15 years. India will jump from 24th to the 10th biggest trading nation in the world. Unlike China's foreign investment fueled growth, India, which economic performance is rooted in domestically generated funds and enterprise and likely to prove more resilient and self-sustaining, less exposed to exogenous shocks. China's diaspora has helped to make it the world's factory. India could become the world's technology lab with the help of Indians overseas.
Nor should we overlook India's importance as an exemplar par excellence of power sharing and political accommodation in a multiethnic, multireligious society within the political framework of democracy, federalism and secularism. In a country where 80 percent of the people are Hindus, the heads of government, state and army until last month were a Sikh, a Muslim (now a Hindu woman), and Sikh respectively; 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 Indians. India languishes in the bottom third of the human development index. Poverty levels are horrific, illiteracy is still a major problem, access to safe water and sanitation remains a pipe dream for most people, and disease is endemic. The public sector is too large and parasitical, public debt too high, and the labor market far too rigid. Bribery is rampant. Petty corruption is especially endemic at the lower, clerical levels of administration--precisely the point at which the ordinary citizen comes into daily contact with officialdom. Markets are underdeveloped, infrastructure is risible, and the debilitating twin cultures of entitlements and subsidies constrain rewards for enterprise, initiative, and merit on the one hand, and the operation of the price mechanism on the other. Economic growth is yet to translate into significantly rising employment. A telling human cost: the sad saga of farmer suicides.
Electoral calculations put a premium on sectarian interests overriding the national interest. Democratic volatility makes it difficult for governments to make decisions that are timely, forceful and final. So many different constituencies and interests must be appeased, so much time devoted to getting "consensus," that what is necessary for national advancement gets progressively whittled down to what is possible for political survival.
Reservations 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 disuse by now. Instead they keep multiplying and expanding. The pathology of caste quotas includes many pernicious and perverse consequences. Indians today are more caste conscious than at independence. Benefits are captured by the better educated, more articulate and more politically skilled elite among the "disadvantaged" groups receiving preferential treatment.
Since 1989, the federal government has been either a minority or coalition government, dependent for continuance on minor parties whose political base is limited to just one province or region. Some parties exploit caste identity as the most potent tool of mass mobilization. Others are caught in an ideological time-warp and resist foreign investment as a threat to sovereignty. Even with a dream team of reformers in Manmohan Singh's administration, limp coalition politics repeatedly trumps hard economic logic.
Relations with Pakistan are less tense than they used to be, but still subject to eruptions with a startling suddenness on the most unexpected of provocations. The festering Kashmir conflict fuel 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, although both maintain a watchful eye over each other's intentions, capability and actions.
Against the weight both of its own history of animosity since independence and current global trends of rising anti-American sentiment, India enjoys excellent relations with the United Staes. In addition to democratic attractiveness, economic and trade liberalization and growth, and the growing power of the Indian lobby in the United States, the civil nuclear cooperation deal is symptomatic of the changed relationship. What used to be a 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 India, no catastrophe not experienced by it, no disaster not befallen. Yet India, a land of fabled and stoic resilience, always picks itself up and keeps going.
Happy 60th birthday, India!