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Improbable success: India’s democratic dream

| Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On Jan. 26, India celebrated Republic Day, the day when its constitution took effect. One of India’s largest holidays, Republic Day is now commemorated with parades and celebrations throughout the country. However, this was not always the case. When the constitution came into effect in 1950, the newly independent Republic of India was at an uncertain point in its history. After centuries of devastating colonial rule, the new multiethnic nation had the daunting task of drafting a democratic constitution tailored to the specific needs of India. Interestingly, the Indian Constitution borrowed the best practices of existing democracies, including the American principles of federalism, three branches of government and judicial review. Despite many challenges, India’s democracy endured and India has since emerged as the world’s largest democracy.

The success of democratic India and its constitution is especially remarkable given the economic and social costs of British rule to India. The British East India Company began its rule in India in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey. For 100 years, India was ruled by a private corporation. In 1858 the British Crown assumed direct responsibility for the subcontinent after the Sepoy Mutiny; their rule was known as the British Raj. Britain’s colonial rule of India continued for nearly two centuries, only ending on August 15, 1947. Former UN under-secretary general for communications and public information and Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor argued that Britain’s industrialization was predicated on India’s de-industrialization. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, India produced 25 percent of the world’s industrial output in 1750. In 1900, after 150 years of British rule, only 2 percent of the world’s industrial output came from India. Aside from the economic devastation caused by the British Raj, Tharoor estimates that 35 million Indians died at the hands of the British Raj. Since the British Raj was an amalgamation of various princely states, the new Republic of India had 22 official languages and thousands of distinct ethnic groups. Conventional and academic wisdom suggests that a nation be relatively wealthy, ethnically homogenous and have high literacy and urbanization rates for democracy to succeed; India at independence lacked all of these prerequisites.

Further complicating India’s democratization was the hasty and mismanaged British partition and exit from the Indian subcontinent. The border between India and Pakistan, the Radcliffe Line, was hurriedly drawn in secret by a British lawyer with no cartographical experience, nor local knowledge of the region’s geography and peoples. This poorly-drawn border led to India’s infamous partition where over 14 million people were displaced and two million people perished. Border disputes between the two nations have led to four wars, furthering the partition’s death toll. The poorly drawn borders have also emboldened various violent separatists groups. Two Indian prime ministers have been assassinated by regional terrorist groups. Such violence would undermine the most stable of democratic states, let alone a newly independent nation recovering from its colonial past.

In spite of these challenges, India was able to develop into a democratic state. India had one key advantage in its democratization: The authors of India’s Constitution were able to study existing constitutions and adopt their best practices. The principal author of India’s Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, studied at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. His time in New York is clearly evident in the Indian Constitution which incorporates many American democratic elements. The American system of federalism, which reserved power for states, was appealing to India with its strong regional identities. This increased autonomy for Indian states has helped keep secessionist movements at bay. In addition to its tangible contributions to Indian democracy, the United States’ institutions have also had an influence on India. American media outlets have developed a tradition of keeping the government accountable to the people. This norm has taken root in India and has strengthened the nation’s democratic process.

The United States has long served as an inspiration and role model to democratizing nations. America has not only created powerful democratic norms and institutions, but she has also educated many of the world’s leaders. Relatively mundane aspects of American democracy such as the peaceful transfer of power are the envy of the world. Americans have a duty not only to themselves, but to the billions of people who live under autocratic regimes to preserve the democratic norms and institutions which facilitated America’s success.

In 1954, as a token of India’s appreciation for America’s role in its democratization, India gifted the United States Senate an ivory gavel to replace John Adam’s gavel, which had recently been broken by Vice President Nixon. India’s first vice president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, traveled to Washington, D.C. to present the gavel and address the U.S. Senate. While speaking at the Senate, Radhakrishnan reminded the senators about the important role American democracy has played in the world and how many newly independent, post-colonial nations modeled their forms of government on that of the United States. To this day, the gavel used by Vice President Pence and the various presiding officers in the Senate is a gift from democratic India.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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