India completes its seventh decade as an independent nation on 15 August. Assessing its recent history is no simple matter explains James Manor, Emeritus Professor of Commonwealth Studies and expert on Indian politics.
This is the most complex society and polity on earth – because of its massive scale, but also its unmatched internal diversity. Celebrations are in order, but we also face sobering concerns.
After independence, Indians insisted on crafting their own constitution – unlike most others who drew upon templates shaped by the British. The resulting document has endured – unlike most of the others – and sustained a robust democracy. India also chose to become a republic, and its acceptance within the Commonwealth brought much needed renewal to that body.
For 20 years after 1947, dominance by the Indian National Congress which had won independence ensured stability, and prevented the new democratic institutions from being engulfed by social conflict or smothered by military coups – woes which afflicted many other new nations.
But by the early 1970s, a popular political awakening enabled other parties to compete. Congress dominance waned and a genuine multi-party democracy emerged. Indira Gandhi’s destruction of the Congress organisation, in a bizarre pursuit of personal rule, furthered Congress’s decline – so that by 1983, every state in this federal system had had at least one non-Congress government.
Between 1989 and 2014, mounting inter-party competition ensured that no single party could win a parliamentary majority. That triggered a massive redistribution of power away from the once-dominant Prime Minister’s Office to other institutions at the national level, and to governments and parties at the state level. India witnessed fewer abuses of power by Prime Ministers than Britain did under either Thatcher or Blair.
Voters became increasingly sophisticated and impatient, so that re-election at national and state levels became excruciatingly difficult. To court impoverished voters, parties competed to develop programmes to benefit them. Economic liberalisation after 1991 eventually accelerated economic growth, and since 2003, government revenues have surged. That enables governments to spend far more – on the poor and everyone else. Growth and poverty programmes have reduced poverty, and many the poorest have been reached, but inequality has increased and some basic needs remain unmet.
Amid all of this, constructive civil society organisations have become more vibrant – and an army of local political entrepreneurs do more to connect communities to government programmes – than in other developing countries. India’s media are as formidable as in any Commonwealth country.
In 2014, a parliamentary majority was finally achieved by the Bharatiya Janata Party led by a hard line Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. He has radically re-centralised power. Prominent figures in the opposition, the media and civil society have suffered harassment. For months, Modi delayed criticisms of lynchings and other outrages by Hindu vigilantes – as long as Muslims were the victims, which they usually were. His long-term prospects depend – uncertainly – on religious polarisation becoming a distraction from what Indians call ‘tall promises’ that remain unfulfilled – especially massive job creation. Institutions are stronger now than when Indira Gandhi assaulted them, but the democratic order faces renewed stress.
Professor James Manor is emeritus professor of Commonwealth studies and senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.