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India's unlikely, enduring democracy

Prime Minister Shri Jawaharial Nehru and Shrimati Vijayalakshmi, the former Ambassador to the U.S.A., with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1952. Photo: Bettmann via Getty

Just five years after India gained independence — 71 years ago today — voters across the newly-born nation cast ballots in its first ever election. Some 176 million citizens, 85% of whom could neither read nor write, were eligible to participate in the vote.

Flash forward: Since then, India’s democracy has withstood the test of time. It’s in many ways an unlikely story. The sprawling nation of more 1.3 billion people is riven by divisions of language, class, and religion. The constitution recognizes 22 separate major languages that are spoken by at least one million people. A majority Hindu nation, India also boasts the world’s second largest Muslim population. The vestiges of the hierarchical caste system continue to limit people’s educational, career, and life prospects.

Despite these hurdles, the country has experienced seven decades of almost uninterrupted democratic rule.

  • Today, around 5% of Indians live in extreme poverty, down from a high of 60% just four decades ago. The administration of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made important strides in expanding access to electricity, healthcare, and sanitation.

There is plenty of work left to do.

  • The share of income accruing to the top 1%, a broad measure of inequality, is the highest since tax collection began in 1922.
  • Many find Modi’s push to move India away from its secular roots toward a new brand of democracy based around identification with its Hindu cultural and religious history worrisome.
  • The government’s recent threat to strip 4 million people, many of whom are migrants from the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, of their citizenship demonstrates the danger.

Despite these challenges, at a moment when democracy is increasingly in question and under threat around the world, India’s largely successful effort over the past seven decades to reconcile the competing identities and passions of over 15% of the world’s population is a staggering accomplishment.

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