India’s recent election shows the distance this vast and diverse country has advanced on the path of democracy. How impressive this is may be appreciated when viewed in the context that no other developing society has confronted obstacles as many and huge as India in the process of making her democratic progress.
The sheer logistics of holding a country-wide election for 543 seats of the Lok Sabha – 714 million eligible voters in a population of over 1.1 billion voting in more than 828,000 polling centres – illustrate the demand on people and resources to make India the world’s largest republican democracy.
The extent to which democracy has become part of India’s political and social fabric – the April-May voting was the 15th general election since the first, held in 1952, after India adopted a republican constitution with a parliamentary form of government in 1950 – is one of the more optimistic stories in our world.
This would not have happened without the commitment and sacrifice of India’s founding leaders and the faith reposed in India’s poor that they embrace the mechanics of democracy as the surest path for progress out of their poverty.
It is worth recalling the founding fathers of the world’s oldest republic were realists. They neither confused men with angels, nor expected fallible men in government to turn into angels and make their fallen world into some sort of heavenly kingdom.
Politics, especially democratic and republican politics, to men around George Washington and those around Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister – held out the minimum promise of free people governing and educating themselves in an administrative system of their making under rule of law.
This promise remains as radical today as it was over 200 years ago in the colonies of British North America. And wherever this promise has taken hold as in India, there we find at minimum fruits of modern civilization in relative peace harvested by people grown in confidence of their place in the world of their making.
This is India’s lesson for developing countries, as well as those countries where democracy seems to have become a political chore out of long habit, instead of free people celebrating their part in holding governments of their choosing accountable.
Yet enough is not said about this celebratory aspect of democracy; of free people seeing in the governments of their choosing reflections of their dignity and expectations for their sons and daughters.
Indians elected Indira Gandhi as their first woman prime minister in 1967, in 2007 Pratibha Devisingh Patil became India’s first woman head of state as president, and following the 2009 election the new Lok Sabha members elected Meira Kumar as the first woman speaker.
Moreover, the Indian electorate demonstrated its maturity despite extremist provocations – from Islamist terrorists as in the Mumbai attack and from class warfare of Maoist-Naxalites in central and eastern India – to vote positively for moderation and modernization.
This meant returning to power the Congress party and its parliamentary allies to continue with economic reform and liberalization despite the global economy in crisis.
India’s emergence as a major global player and ally of the West is buttressed and legitimized by her democracy. This too is reason, in our somewhat grim world, deserving celebration.