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India’s Democracy at 60

At midnight on August 15, 1947, a new nation was born on a subcontinent ripped apart by a bloody partition. Independent India came into being as flames blazed across the land, corpse-laden trains crossed the new frontier with Pakistan, and weary refugees abandoned everything to seek a new life. A less propitious start for a fledgling nation could scarcely be imagined.

Yet, six decades later, the India that emerged from the wreckage of the British Raj is the world’s largest democracy, poised after years of rapid economic growth to take its place as one of the giants of the twenty-first century. A country whose very survival seemed in doubt at its founding offers striking lessons in constructing, against all odds, a working democracy.

No other country embraces such an extraordinary profusion of ethnic groups, mutually incomprehensible languages, religions, and cultural practices, as well as variations of topography, climate, and levels of economic development. In 1947, India’s leaders faced a country with a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees worth of property damage, and the wounds of sectarian violence still bleeding. Given this, and the challenges of administering a new country, integrating the “princely states” into the Indian Union, and reorganizing the divided armed forces, they could have been forgiven for demanding dictatorial powers.

But India made a strength out of its major weakness. To the American motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” India could only counter, “E Pluribus Pluribum.” Instead of suppressing its diversity in the name of national unity, India acknowledged its pluralism in its institutional arrangements: all groups, faiths, tastes, and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun.