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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Spicy democracy

India | In India as elsewhere, government of and by the people can be pungent, messy, and slow

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

BANGALORE—I left India this month trailing masala—the garlic, onions, chili paste, ginger, cardamom, and other exotic spices that fill the air morning to night, infusing every dish, even breakfast food. I overdosed. Twenty hours in flight and nearly 10,000 miles later, it was still seeping from my pores. 

Masala is a good backdrop for contemplating India’s burgeoning democracy. It’s messy, obnoxious, full of contrasts and contradictions, fascinating: In short, it’s spicy. In reality, democracy has been that kind of business ever since the Continental Congress delegates took their seats in Philadelphia long ago. 

In a season when democracy as a form of government turns another page in the United States, it’s perhaps never been a more abused term around the world. We know now that elections do not a democracy make. Elections without guaranteed individual liberties, the rule of law, and a strong civil society become a cover for another form of tyranny. A democrat won’t necessarily prevail in such a democracy.

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But democracies don’t come about overnight. India, the world’s largest democracy, is like the rest of us an uneasy one. Its independence in 1947 ushered in a generation of socialist leadership starting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Then followed what Indian author Gurcharan Das has called “a lost generation,” where many Indians stagnated in poverty though the country’s economy, education, and personal freedom in fact were slowly expanding. Then, starting in 1991, according to Das, India’s latest era began “a rebirth of dreams.”

If you don’t think economic policy matters, consider this: The single largest change in 1991 was that the government abruptly ended its “license raj,” an elaborate system of bureaucratic controls imposed on all business and commerce since independence. Nearly every year since, India’s economy has grown at a rate of 6 percent—nearly double the U.S. rate. Forecasters say in the next decade India will overtake Japan as the third-largest economy in the world.

Not everyone here knows the prosperity. Estimates are that 300 million Indians (of 1.2 billion) live in absolute poverty. In Bangalore, the center of the country’s explosive IT growth, new apartment complexes—complete with covered carports sheltering shiny new sedans—abut vacant lots where the lowest caste “untouchables,” known as Dalits, live in tents of plastic tarps and drying palm fronds. The country’s vast diversity—400 languages, along with all the world’s major religions—guarantees that challenges will remain. 

But the public square for vetting tensions appears to be growing. In a skirmish roughly parallel to the one over Mitt Romney’s “47 percent,” India’s Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh on Oct. 5 said his country has more temples than toilets, and that “toilets are more important than temples,” attempting to make a point about sanitation. 

In a country that is about 80 percent Hindu, his remarks were incendiary: Hindu nationalist party leaders staged protests outside Ramesh’s home and ministry headquarters in New Delhi, demanding an apology. What morphed into the “toilet vs. temple debate” laid bare a public dispute about the responsibility of the state versus individuals and the vast economic divide between India’s growing, urban middle class and its rural poor. Hindus took offense at the comparison, but the mobs and violence we’re growing accustomed to seeing in these cases never developed.

Rule of law, too, took a step forward in October when a court in New Delhi sentenced to death five family members involved in a 2010 “honor killing.” When a couple from different Hindu castes announced plans to marry, the girl’s parents, uncle, aunt, and a cousin tortured and electrocuted the two to death.

It’s the third case where a Delhi court has awarded the death penalty since last year when the Supreme Court said that “honor killings” fell in the “rarest of rare” category deserving capital punishment. 

These represent important if hesitating steps toward democracy in more than name only. They lend hope that such killings may one day also be prosecuted in other so-called democracies, like Pakistan and countries now in transition in the Middle East.


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