India turns a corner
by Ravi Verma, Tue May 19, 2009 at 04:26:17 PM EDT
I am delighted by the results of the recent elections in India.
You may have heard that most people were happy at the results as well, and that the stock markets shot up. You may have read on various implications the election results would have on US-India relationships, etc. etc. As a dual US-Indian citizen, I DO take delight in all that.
However, the primary source of my happiness is that the election results prove that India has turned a corner. It signifies that Indian democracy has nucleated, and that the Indian union is strong, and will only get stronger.
You may wonder why I am celebrating the nucleation of democracy in India, when most people are eagerly awaiting the rise of India as the next big power. Furthermore, everyone knows that India is the world's largest democracy, etc. etc.
Well, it is not quite that simple. And I do believe that the survival of Indian democracy was not guaranteed up until very recently. Please follow me below the jump, and I will explain.
I will use 2 charts to illustrate the point I want to make. There are more charts along these lines, but these charts will suffice. The first chart is a plot of the literacy rate in India over time.
Please look at the chart again, and then think about the following:
(a) The literacy rate before Independence (1947) was abysmal, and very little progress was made on that front under British rule. I have seen some historical reports on the literacy rate in the pre-British days, and they are in the 10% range. This would mean that the literacy rate actually declined under the British.
(b) One consequence of (or rather, a correlation with) the low literacy rate is abysmal standards of living as signified by any metric. This would include average life expectancy at birth (which declined from 32 to 25 years under British rule), per capita GDP etc. etc.
At this point, it is immaterial to think about why those metrics declined... the reasons are not relevant to the point I wish to make. It suffices to acknowledge that India, at Independence in 1947, was a very poor country, with a lot of poor people.
The Independence movement in India was led by the Congress Party. The movement for Independence from the British was actually a minor sideeffect of a movement for social and economic upliftment undertaken by the Congress. As a consequence of this movement, there was an informal compact between the people and the Congress. And this compact went something like this:
We know that you are miserable, and that your children die young. Please give us the opportunity, and some time, and some sacrifices, we will improve the quality of life... not in your lifetime, or in your children's lifetime, but in your grandchildren's lifetime
I made up the language above, but it represents a fairly accurate view of the compact, in my opinion. The leaders used more flowery language ("give me your blood, and your tears"), but the point was the same. It was on the basis of this compact, that the people turned to the Congress, and the Congress led India to Independence.
Now, what happens next ?
If you look at the literacy chart above, the results are stunning.... but not immediately obvious. Starting in 1947, the literacy rate starts to climb at a fairly rapid rate. At the present clip, full literacy will be achieved in another 20 years or so. This turnaround, engineered by the leaders of the Congress party in 1947 is...without precedent in all of history (I would be much obliged if anyone can cite any examples to prove me wrong on this point). I should also mention that all other metrics of the quality of life (life expectancy, infant mortality, per capita GPD etc. etc.) also show a very similar behavior.
But is this rate of development fast enough ?
Remember, the original compact was that the Congress would improve the quality of life in your grandchildren's lifetime. The literacy metric does not show this, but the quality of life had not improved much by the time the child born in the 1940s and 1950s grew up. The literacy metric also does not show a very critical feature: the quality of life improved for the upper classes before it improved for the downtrodden (even today, the "female-dalit-cobbler", which is an example of a person who is downtrodden on 3 fronts, is not doing too well).
One consequence of this was that the people started drifting away from the Congress party, and towards regional and/or caste based parties. The vote share of the Congress party started to decline. And I will use this as the basis of my 2nd chart.
If you look at the chart above, and ignore the 2 outliers as being caused by extraordinary events, you can see some overall trends.
(a) the general vote share of the Congress party declines slowly (the green line) as people drift away slowly.
(b) starting in 1990, the decline occurs at a more rapid rate. This period has signified the rise of "anger-based" parties, including the BJP (which signifies anger at the perceived tilt of the Congress Party towards the Muslims), and various caste based parties (which signifies the anger of the downtrodden at their quality of life not improving at the same rate), and the Mao-ist movement that affects a very substantial part of India today.
It appears that the Congress' compact had been broken.
(c) but starting sometime this decade, it appears that the trend has reversed (red line), and the anger based parties are now on the backfoot.
The reason for this latest trend reversal is clear...the developments initiated in 1947 is finally reaching the lowest rungs of society, and the time for anger may be passing.
Of course, 1 data point does not signify a trend; but I am hopeful. The literacy rate around my hometown in India remains well under 50% (that should tell most Indians where I am from), and the rise of the anger-based parties would have been very unpleasant for my family.
Finally, I will close by quoting from Neville Maxwell, a correspondent of the UK Times, who was covering the 5th general elections in India in 1967.
The great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed. Indians would soon vote in the "fourth - and surely last - general election".
This quote illustrates the folly of making such grand pronouncements (as I have just made) based on limited data points.
Thank you for reading!!