The State of the Indian Republic

The health of India’s democracy is important for its 1.3 billion citizens, its region and the world.

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On August 15, India celebrated 73 years of independence. By some metrics, the country has been a fantastic success. Multi-ethnic states such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In contrast, India is still united despite its bewildering diversity in terms of religion, region, language, caste and class. Its democracy has proved resilient and political power still changes hands peacefully.


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The Republic of India began as and continues to be an audacious experiment. India’s independence came at a terrible cost. In 1947, the departing British partitioned the country into India and Pakistan, leading to violence and the largest migration in history. Despite the violence and chaos, India chose a pluralistic democracy and inspired other colonized nations to pursue independence.

Since then, India has changed dramatically. Some trumpet the country’s great achievements. Others damn its monumental failures. In 2020, India still offers insights and lessons to many other nations around the world. With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, the state and health of the Republic of India is a matter of global importance.

The Story of the Republic

In seven decades, Indians have become much better off physically and financially on aggregate. For a start, they are living longer. Life expectancy in 1947 was 32 years. Today, it is over 69. During British rule, famine was a part of Indian life. It began with the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-70, which killed 10 million people, a third of the population of Bengal. During World War II, an estimated 3 to 5 million people died as Bengal’s grain was diverted to the overseas British war effort. Since independence in 1947, India has suffered no major famine and has achieved food security for the first time in centuries.

There are many other achievements. India’s per capita GDP has improved dramatically. Literacy has increased from 11% in 1947 to 74% as per the 2011 census. Social mobility for women and members of lower castes has increased. A Dalit (India’s lowest caste) woman has held office as chief minister of India’s largest state and a woman has been prime minister. India now has nuclear and space programs and is on the verge of great power status.

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Yet there are warts in the picture. Cambridge economist Joan Robinson had a lifelong love affair with India and famously observed, “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” Her observation holds true today.

Indians may not be dying of hunger, but too many of them are still struggling to get enough food or water. In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India ranks at a lowly 102 out of 117 qualifying countries. As of 2017, 37.9% of children under 5 were stunted and 14.5% of the population was undernourished. These rates are comparable to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, not in East or Southeast Asia. According to NITI Aayog, the premier policy think tank of the government, India faces the worst water crisis in its history and about 600 million face acute shortages. With nearly 70% of the water contaminated, India ranks 120 out of 122 countries in the water quality index.

To add insult to injury, India‘s health care system is in crisis. Numerous research papers have chronicled the low quality of primary care facilities for women and children. A study by The Lancet found that 2.4 million Indians die of treatable diseases every year. A 2016 report by the World Health Organization found that 57.3% of India’s doctors did not have a medical qualification. When it came to nurses and midwives, 67.1% had education only up to secondary school level. Rural areas are poorly served. Public health care has declined dramatically. Even the poor turn to private health care where profiteering is rife.

Like health care, education is in poor health. Annual reports invariably find young Indians lacking in cognitive development, early language and early numeracy. Teachers are often recruited on the basis of bribery. Like doctors, many are not qualified for their jobs. In addition, schools often lack basic facilities like water or electricity. Anyone who can afford to do so sends their children to private schools. For many, the focus of education is clearing entrance examinations to government-run, highly-subsidized elite universities. As a result, a booming $40-billion private coaching industry has emerged, which trains students for such examinations, allowing little space for innovation.

Like education, India’s environment is in a dire state. The air in cities like Delhi or Bangalore is almost unbreathable. Sewage and industrial waste are discharged into rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and other water bodies. Plastic litters the land, including the high Himalayas. The levels of pollution have made scientists offer repeated warnings about impending environmental disasters to little effect.

The Indian economy is in a similar state to the environment. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, growth had stalled and jobs dried up. More than 50% of Indians are under 25 and over 65% under 35. Thanks to selective abortion and gender discrimination, India has higher female mortality and more men than women. These single men present a major national challenge. Thanks to persistently high unemployment, there is a real risk that India’s much-trumpeted demographic dividend could turn into a demographic disaster.

India’s institutions that are supposed to deal with these challenges are in dangerous decline. In politics, crime pays. Money and muscle power are essential for winning elections. Identity politics in the form of religion, region, caste and class has risen to alarming levels. In bureaucracy, corruption works. Colonial laws and post-independence ones have led to restrictive red tape. Citizens navigate it through bribery, personal networks or political influence.

Furthermore, elite bureaucrats are held in high esteem. After they clear a grueling exam in their 20s, these mandarins are deemed omniscient. They head everything from exam boards to airlines and move seamlessly across ministries of culture, agriculture and finance. Neither lack of domain expertise nor incompetence holds them back. 

Like the bureaucracy, India’s judiciary faces major issues. Like Bollywood, the profession of law is known for nepotism, not competence. The judicial system is infamous for its delays. Over 3.7 million, about 10% of the total number of cases, have been pending for over 10 years. Hence, many citizens turn to local crime bosses instead of courts for justice. Many of these criminals go on to run for office. Even the police are accused of behaving like a mafia. With the crumbling of the criminal justice system, they are increasingly taking to vigilante justice and extrajudicial killings.

The weakening of institutions has gravely undermined the rule of law. The republic may not yet be in peril, but it is not too far off from a major crisis.

Why Does the Indian Republic Matter?

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there were high hopes for a new age of peace and progress. Democracy was the new natural order of the universe. In 2020, that romance with democracy has dimmed. Strongmen are in power in many countries. Polarization runs high. India is no exception to this global trend and it assumes importance for five key reasons.

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First, the Indian republic matters most to its 1.3 billion citizens. Its success would mean better lives for nearly a fifth of humanity.

Second, if the republic fails to deliver essential services or meet minimal expectations of its citizens, India could experience violence, chaos and even disintegration. The entire region could go up in flames as in 1947 when the British partitioned the country into India and Pakistan.

Third, India has long been an exemplar for the decolonized world. Countries like Tanzania and South Africa avidly studied India’s imperfect but resilient democracy. India provides a good roadmap for the bumpy transition from a traditional to a democratic society.

Fourth, the Indian republic offers rich insights for any multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious democracy. The promise and peril of such an experiment are laid bare in India.

Fifth, India poses difficult questions for our time. Can democracies avoid degenerating into popularity contests between competing special interest groups? If so, how? Can a humongous republic with innumerable moving parts reform itself? If so, what does it take? If not, what lies ahead? Answers to such questions will determine the future course of history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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