There is much to celebrate about India today

A peaceful transition of power is uncommon in much of the world.
A peaceful transition of power is uncommon in much of the world.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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If there is one sure thing that will get an Indian excited, it is to ask him what is wrong with the country. This is not a bad thing. Criticism is necessary for progress. Indeed we have a long list of items we need to make progress on. But what if we also debated what is right with India, especially Indian democracy? In my view, Indian democracy, perhaps more than any other, is a lighthouse for the free world.

It has been a month since the Narendra Modi-led NDA formed the new government. Indians and the Indian stock market celebrated the decisive mandate and the victory of the “development narrative”. Much of the rest of the world also celebrated but their reason was different. They marveled at a much simpler fact that Indians take for granted. It is this: India achieved a peaceful transition of legitimate power from a ruling party that governed for a decade.

This is not trivial. Indeed, India’s democratic journey is an amazing achievement with hardly any precedent for a large country that is extremely diverse and mostly poor or middle class. To appreciate this, we need to zoom out and look at the big picture at the world’s stage. We should understand that achieving democracy is very elusive and that we have achieved something very precious which most countries struggle to achieve. To prove this point, let me take you on a tour of democracy around the world, particularly the developing world (countries outside the OECD club of rich countries).

Let us start with our backyard in South Asia.

Bangladesh is ruled by Sheikh Hasina whose main rival Khaleda Zia was under house arrest at the time of election earlier in 2014, which Zia’s party and its 17 allies boycotted. This election was a farce. Just imagine an Indian national election boycotted by NDA. Nepal rejected monarchy and got its democratically elected constituent assembly only in 2008. It was a fractious assembly. The next election held in 2013 was boycotted by 33 parties. Afghanistan is a war torn country where democracy has struggled to deal with the Taliban. There is a Presidential election going on at the time of writing this article which is under crisis. One of the two contenders for the top job has accused the other camp of rigging the votes and asked for counting to be stopped. Pakistan had multiple military coup d’états that toppled civilian governments. In 2013, Nawaz Sharif’s government became the first one since independence which saw a democratic transfer of power between civilian governments. Sri Lanka is a proud democracy with serious question marks of human rights violation in the civil war in which the military defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. The Sri Lankan north, where Tamils are majority, has been under de-facto military rule. In 2013, Tamil National Alliance won the provincial election with landslide in the north but continues to struggle for power with the federal government and the military. Maldives got its democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed only in 2008 after a 30-year dictatorship. He was subsequently toppled in a military coup. Lastly, Bhutan had its first election only in 2008.

Let us now travel to East Asia outside of OECD.

North Korea is run by a mad dictator. China, Vietnam and Laos have single-party communist regimes. Hong Kong’s democracy today is under its biggest threat in decades with China asserting its influence. Thailand had a violent military coup in May. Burma’s democracy is young and fragile with the military dictatorship giving way to civilian government only in 2011. Their civil and ethnic strife is as old as Kashmir conflict with 4 times the casualties. Malaysia and Singapore are thriving economies but have only had one-party rule them since their respective independence and have never experienced transfer of power. Similarly in Cambodia, Hun Sen has been the head of state for 30 years. Indonesia, with a population of 240 million, had decades of authoritarian government under Suharto who resigned in 1998. Indonesian democracy is doing well but it is worth noting that it is undergoing its first civilian transition of power later this year. East Timor became independent only in 2002.

The story is not very different if we go west toward the Middle East especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

There is war and high instability in Syria and Iraq and even Yemen and Libya. Iran has a presidential system in which people vote from a list approved by the council of guardians, who in turn are selected by Iran’s Supreme Leader. The GCC states (Saudi, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar) all have authoritarian regimes under a supreme Emir, Sheikh or a Sultan. Egypt had not one but two coups recently.

When it comes to Africa, observers such as the Economist and Mo Ibrahim Foundation classify it as a mesh of failed or at-war state (Somalia, CAR, Sudan), authoritarian regimes, or flawed democracies. Only tiny Mauritius made the cut of being called a full democracy in large Africa. Democracy and voting have spread but they still have a long way to go, including in their best performing southern region. If we move north to the bigger countries of ex-communist Europe and Central Asia, Ukraine is unstable and had a coup recently. Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan are democracies sliding into authoritarianism under Putin, Erdogan and Nazarbayev.

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Put in this context, India’s 67-year democratic run now seems marvelous (apart for the brief emergency under Indira Gandhi which we rightly condemn). Freedom House, a think tank, estimates 40% of world lives in free democratic countries (see picture). Indians constitute close to 60% of this free world. This is a testimony of our democratic success. Mature democracies where power transfers from one civilian to another without coup or bloodshed is still rarity rather than the norm.

But why is democracy a big deal? Some surveys around the world show that people actually care more for economic success than good democracy. A short story might help to put this in perspective.

Mehdi, a colleague of mine, is an economic development expert who works on job creation by identifying and removing obstacles for businesses such as licenses, overregulation and lack of standards. He was asked to go to Iraq on a project. He was asked to first fly to Jordan where he was given a bulletproof vest and helmet and security training. He then flew to Baghdad in a military aircraft. They took him in an armored vehicle from red zone to amber zone and finally to the green zone. The green zone is the heavily fortified zone in Iraq which also houses the American and British embassies.

His room had a very thick concrete roof for protection against bombing and many sand bags to hide behind in case of shelling. Eventually he got to work which was to survey business people to understand the top challenges and to design solutions. He had to be accompanied by armed soldiers to do this because meetings were held outside green zone. It was not long before he realized the hopelessness of the situation. Mehdi learnt a simple lesson at great expense and risk to his life: there is no economic progress without peace and freedom.

In early 1960s, US president John F Kennedy warily looked at two young but large republics—China and India. China just had gone through calamitous “great leap forward” and prepared for the “cultural revolution”. JFK really hoped that Indian democracy succeeds to become an inspiration for rest of the world, which was largely undemocratic. For instance, there were only 45 electoral democracies in 1970.

We can say today that Indian democracy has succeeded so far and shown the way to rest of the developing world. We have many problems and Indians are right to focus on development. But we must take a moment to pause and reflect on our place in rest of the world and be very proud of our hard earned democracy and peace. We must also not take it for granted. Just imagine if ruling party had put the opposition leader under house arrest followed by the opposition boycotting the election, leading to violent political turmoil and a military coup. Such a template to trample democracy is all too common.

Indians do not really love their politicians or their media. But it is the political parties, media, the military, judiciary, the election commission and most importantly the tolerant masses of our great country that have together earned us our success. Let us celebrate our democracy and pledge to always protect it.