India at 70: A remarkable, unfinished project

By 2040 India’s gross domestic product is expected to overtake that of the United States

 

In his speech on the eve of India’s independence 70 years ago this month, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first leader, was careful to temper the triumphalist mood with a warning to his compatriots. Freedom from British colonial rule was “but a step, an opening of opportunity”, he said. Seven decades on, India rightly celebrates the achievements of what was a radical political experiment. Unlike in the West, where democracy had evolved in steps, the franchise progressively extending within comparatively cohesive groups, India became the first low-income state to extend the vote to all its citizens. That model came into being peacefully. Despite the challenges it faced in a young state marked by extraordinary ethnic and religious diversity, varied topography, a rigid caste system and weak central structures, it has flourished. In defiance of those who predicted fragmentation or a slide into authoritarianism, in modern India today one-sixth of the world’s population can elect their leaders in free and fair elections.

By nearly all measurements, the state has made great strides in its short existence. In 1993, 46 per cent of Indians were earning less than $1.90 a day. That fell to 38 per cent in 2004 and 21 per cent by 2011. Overall, life expectancy has jumped from 41 years in 1961 to 69 today, meaning Indians can expect to live almost as long as westerners thanks to advances in medicine and healthcare. The country is growing rapidly – 70 years from now India will have a population of some 1.6 billion, well ahead of China, according to the United Nations. And an expanding economy, driven by a fast-growing middle class, means that by 2040 India’s gross domestic product is expected to overtake that of the United States.

With all of this will come acute growing pains, however. Demographic pressures will increase, pollution will rise, global warming will begin to take a toll and India will be called on to assume greater leadership in the region and the world. The coming changes will expose further some of the deeply embedded problems India already faces. Freedom of expression remains as much an ideal as a reality, while polarisation between Hindus and Muslims is growing more entrenched – a situation hardly helped by the fact that the government of prime minister Narendra Modi is backed by right-wing Hindu extremists. Elections are only one element of a functioning democracy. India’s ability to fulfil its democratic promise is undermined by low public confidence in government, tax evasion, limited state capacity and far too little progress on social equality.

Just days before the 70th anniversary celebrations began last week, 85 children died at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh after its oxygen supplies were cut because of unpaid bills. It was a reminder of the stark challenges India faces as its national project enters a new phase.

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