India turns a corner

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!!

Tags: corner, Indepdendence, India, Literacy, Nehru (all tags)



Jai Ho

And peace to everyone!!

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 04:27PM | 0 recs
I love India

and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
I spent several months there in 1990 and found the people were fabulous.

I'm happy to see the literacy rates climbing in such a drastic manner. I was literate in Hindi and could converse in simple sentences. It broke my heart to stand on a train platform and have to tell adults what the destination of the train was because they could not read the sign. No one could understand anything said over the loud speaker announcing the destinations. So its great to hear that this issue is on the decline.

Thanks for the post and I'm happy for you.

नमस्तí 5;

by oc 2009-05-19 04:44PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

I'm also a lifelong fan of India, having spent many months there long ago.  From it's amazing struggle for independence through to emergence as a arguably homogenous 'great power' it's history has been fundamentally honourable.  I can recall seeing the 'All-India' phrase in spontaneous, popular use constantly, on mini-buses and billboards, and thinking 'this is a good sign.'  I was so proud when they hosted the Commonwealth Games back in the eighties.

For a people as diverse, linguistically and culturally, to have created a coherent nation out of the mercantile Raj is an admirable miracle of the 20th century.  The diarist probably realises that I entertain similar aspirations for Pakistan, though the prospects are significantly dimmer.  It would be instructive to see their literacy trends over the same period.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-19 04:58PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

I too wish for, and have aspirations for Pakistan.  My family is from there, originally (they moved in 1946...just prior to partition).

(And I also wish I had 10% of the guts you do.)

Where we differ, I think, is in the things that must happen before Pakistan can develop along those lines.

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 05:26PM | 0 recs
Just for the Record

Just trying out the diarist's fascinating argument on a neighbouring 'failed' state:

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Senate on Wednesday was informed that national literacy rate is 54 percent out of which 66.25 percent male and 41.75 percent female are literate.

This was stated by Minister for Education, Mrs. Zubaida Jalal in her written reply to a query raised by Senator Sardar Latif Khosa in the Senate here.

Giving the province-wise and gender-wise detail, the Minister informed that an estimated 60.8% population is literate in Punjab province.

The literacy rate for male and female are 70% and 51% respectively, she added.

In NWFP, 47.4% population of the province is literate, out of which 63% are male and 30.8% female.

The Minister said that the literacy rate of Sindh province is about 5.15% out of which 60.5% are male and 42.5% female.

The 34% population of Balochistan are literate and the literacy rate of male and female is about 45% and 23% respectively, she added.

Pakistan's literacy rate nearly 54% Pakistan Times 15 Jul 04

Seems there is hope yet.  Interesting that NWFP and Balochistan are trailing.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-19 05:29PM | 0 recs

there is a counter to this argument, but I will have to thrash that out later.

You do have a point, however!!

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 05:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Actually

Always happy to hear from you and congratulations on a terrific diary.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-19 05:55PM | 0 recs
So here is a short answer.

I am afraid I must not have conveyed my main point of this diary all too well.

The danger to the Indian union...up until this point... had been (and may still be) the vast disparity in the development rate for the different classes.  For instance, the female-dalit-cobbler (pdf) has not done well.

This disparity leads to anger, and to a centrifugal force that pulls the nation apart.  The danger to the union has been that the rate of development would not trickle down to the lowest rungs fast enough to counteract the centrifugal force.

The numbers you cite from Pakistan (in your text,  not in your chart) are actually quite frightening from that viewpoint.

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 08:46PM | 0 recs
Re: So here is a short answer.

The Balochistan and NWFP ones you mean?  Look, I don't mean to hijack your diary, so we can discuss this later and elsewhere if you like.  My only point was that the trend towards literacy in Pakistan was significant and headed in the right direction.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-19 11:30PM | 0 recs
It is a not a hijack

In many ways, the story of NWFP and of Balochistan is very similar to the story of my hometown; and the rise of the Taliban is similar to the rise of the Mao-ists in India.

The NWFP (and Balochistan too, I think) had voted for the Congress Party under elections held in 1937.  In NWFP, the Indian National Congress  was represented by the Awami National Congress, whose leader (Gaffar Khan) was called Frontier Gandhi.  It is ironic that these regions were so much more secular in outlook than Punjab and Sindh (which voted for the Muslim League).  The biggest tragedy of partition, even bigger than the division of Kashmir, was the betrayal of the NWFP by the Congress... as he was walking away, Gaffar Khan told the Congress leaders that they had been thrown to the wolves.

This history is relevant if you want to understand the present conditions.  The NWFP (and Balochistan too) had a compact with the Congress.  The Congress abandoned them to the Muslim League... so the Muslim League inherited that compact.  However, the Muslim League was not interested in anything by fomenting war with India, and was generally unprepared for doing any governing.

Consequently, developments in Pakistan have been largely dominated by Punjab and Sindh; which is where the disparity in literacy rates come in.

I am not doubting your overall point ~ that Pakistan is improving.  However, the real question is whether it is improving at a fast enough rate, and whether that improvement is trickling down to the lowest rungs at a fast enough rate.  This is the issue that nearly imploded India in the 1990s.  This is the issue that, because it is being addressed now, results in my confidence in the Indian state.

To a large extent, the issue of the development reaching the lowest rungs is decided by the type of governing structure you have in place.  We all agree that military dictatorships are the worst, but a democracy is not necessarily significantly better if the state does not know how to decentralize power to it's various units.

The way the Pakistani state is setup, power is centralized in the Central government, with the states having very little say in how their resources get used.  Of course, the situation is worse under a dictator, but the democrats have not been much better.  The creation of Bangladesh was a result of this phenomenon (btw, the man most responsible for that was Bhutto, not Yahya Khan).  The simmering problems in Balochistan is also a result of this... they are rich in natural resources, but the revenue is used for roadbuilding in Punjab.  And the NWFP turning to the Taliban is also a consequence of this phenomenon.

I can relate to this because I see the Maoist movement around my hometown.

So, what is the answer?

Well, you do have to "defeat" them militarily, but that is not sufficient; specially because they cannot be "defeated" militarily.

The real answer is to provide a better alternative.  It does not suffice to say that the Taliban are bad people because they behead girls... because the people had judged the previous alternative offered by the state as being equally bad (or perhaps even worse).

Instead, the state must say... look, we screwed up, and here is what we have learnt, and here is what we proposed to do (this is where they must list 20 different things, such as the recently signed transit agreement). And if you give us a chance, with Allah's blessing, we will not screw up ever again

Instead of doing that, the state is vowing to crush (or in kill every last one) the Taliban, with nary a thought given to why the people had turned to the Taliban in the first place.  Instead of taking a reflective position on it's own sins (and I am sure you will agree that the Pakistan state does have a lot of sin), the state is busy blaming outsiders.  

These are not very hopeful signs....

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 08:32AM | 0 recs
Re: It is a not a hijack

A brilliant post.  My only quibble is you give the impression that a NWFP majority would have opposed partition in 1947 which is not clear.  We may never know, as Ghaffer Khan's followers boycotted the polls, but he was physically attacked and injured in 1946 by fellow Muslims for his views.  Much changed between 1937 and 1947.

But I totally agree with your thesis, which is that Pakistan has failed to provide a stable framework which would encourage Pashtuns and Balochis to believe in a steady improvement in their quality of life and cultural security, if not for themselves then for their children.  This has not happened in Pakistan, and it is the causal factor in the crises of that state.

As for the Taliban, it seems that they are even more insensitive to the aspirations and values of their Pashtun countrymen than Islamabad, for which we should probably be grateful as much as we deplore their medieval iniquities.  It is hard, though, to suggest that Pastun or Balochi ambitions are best served by a Balkanisation of Pakistan, as has been suggested here, when India has set such a shining example of diverse and egalitarian unity in similar circumstances just next door.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 01:24PM | 0 recs
Re: It is a not a hijack

Thank you for the complement!

Yes, we are fortunate that the Taliban are complete brutes.. if they could even fake a modicum of modernity, they would have taken over Pakistan by now.  A substantial majority of the public in Pakistan is willing to accept Sharia laws... so it is a wonder that the Taliban has not already taken over.

And yes, I admit that if the NWFP had been asked, they would have probably voted for partition in 1947.  It does not take much to create fissures; but I like to forget that part of the NWFP's history.  My mother's grandfather was a disciple of Gaffar Khan... so I am somewhat biased, but there is a reason why my family moved out in 1946.

In my view, the prospect of Balkanisation (and the associated violence) is a necessary step, and therefore represents progress.  Absent the threat of violence, and of Balkanisation, the elite classes have no incentive to devolve power.  With the threat of Balkanisation, there is a finite chance of a real power sharing arrangement.  India went through this in the 1980s, and 1990s... and appears to have emerged intact.  

I am not advocating that Pakistan be divided up into 7 pieces.  Just that the idea of dividing Pakistan into 7 pieces should be put on the table...because a discussion on that would be a step forward.

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 02:02PM | 0 recs
Re: It is a not a hijack

Modernity and the Taliban are chalk and cheese.  And as for Balkanising Pakistan I would consider that a considerable backward step on the road to moderate and enlightened Islamic nationalism globally.  Even Ghaffer Khan, unyeilding loyal to Pashtun cultural identity, saw his people's aspirations served best within the context of a broader, diverse and egalitarian state.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 02:38PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

Your discussions make me envious and I feel as though I've been locked in a closet all my life, never having left North America except to cruise the Caribbean islands.

I've admired India (alas, from afar) for her succesful, peaceful struggle (and victory) against British colonialism. Mohandes Ghandi is one of my heroes. Everyone I've ever known who went there LOVED it!

I always wanted to go to Mumbai or somewhere along the western coastline and experience the monsoon rains (this is the geeky meteorologist talking). I've analyzed India's monsoons for years and parts of the western coastline will get a few thousand millimeters of rain over the course of the monsoon season (25.4 mm = 1"). The isthmus-looking part of India north of Bangladesh leading to the easternmost region (Assam?!?!?) also gets a ton of rainfall.

I always thought it would be depressing, but since the monsoon immediately follows the hottest time of year, it's probably at least initially a relief!

And the few people I've talked to seemed oddly comfortable with the dousing monsoon in Mumbai; they seemed to take it as a confirmation of the natural cycles continuing and moving us forward. I've probably been too sheltered to understand completely.

OK I've probably started another zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz fest so I'll stop. I trying not yet so successfuly to tighten this stuff up!

by RecoveringRepublican 2009-05-20 01:45PM | 0 recs
Interesting that you say that

A lot of Arabs visit India for "monsoon tourism"

Maybe you should look into it.  I have not experienced the monsoon for over 19 years, but I do remember it as being something quite special.  Walking in a heavy downpour can feel like walking in a swimming pool.

And yes, when the first rains hit...people go out and dance on the streets!  It does feel like paradise.  You also get different fruits and vegetables.  For instance, the chillis get hotter in the monsoon, and the mangoes get sweeter and riper (yumm!!)

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 02:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting that you say that
Oh yes, I remember riding my bicycle in Pondicherry, being instantly drenched, but warm enough, no longer able to say where the water layer stopped and the air began, and it was a totally exhilarating experience. I laughed to myself all the way to my place.
Thanks for this great diary, by the way !  
by french imp 2009-05-20 10:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting that you say that

Yes, I remember that too...not knowing where the water ends and air begins!  I remember being amazed that I coudl still breathe =)

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-21 05:52AM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

Living in the tropics for awhile is a life-changing experience, I was in equitorial Borneo for several years and was unable to shake my fascination with the wet and wild places.  I live in Northern NSW to this day, surrounded by my beloved rainforest, and am presently flooded in yet again, the creeks roaring, my son's school cancelled today, with more rain forecast and a week's supply of groceries, grog and candles.

As for India, I owe her a great personal debt and have always thought of her as the cultural and compassionate 'soul' of the world, as much as I admire the ancient Greeks.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 02:27PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

What do you do there ?

I looked you up on google... it appears you are in the IT industry.  How did you end up in Australia ?

I too wish I could chuck my comfortable existence in the US suburbs for a life in the outbacks.  Course, my wife and kids have an opinion on everything I do, so...

Growing up, I had a geography book on Australia... and I just loved every page of it.

I feel somewhat envious, when you describe your house, and your current environments..brings back some memories.

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 03:05PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

Yes, well it's a quiet life.  At the moment a wet one too.  I never made it all the way back to the US after my world travels, and as usual there was a woman involved.  She's long gone and I remain in a very rural setting, ten acres of woodland, a creek and a short drive to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Just my son, a border collie and some chooks.  Suits me fine.  How about you?

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 03:56PM | 0 recs
Funny that

I came to the US for grad school...fully intending to return in 2 years, after doing my time (I was forced to come heart was into politics in India).  Like you, there was a woman who changed my mind for me.  And like you, she is long gone now (mostly my fault, I always hasten to add).

But, in the process, I discovered that I liked science...and that I was even pretty good at it.  So now I live in a 3/2 (3 bed,2 bath) 1580 sqft house, with an 8000 sq ft lot; and I spend my time worrying about fancy problems to solve.

My heart still misses the ripe mangoes, and the green chillies, and the first rain, and the sound of the cricket on a summer evening.  My biggest regret is that my daughters will never experience that... or what it is like to never see a billboard or signpost, until you are a teen!

What is a chook ??

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 07:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Funny that

I make it a rule to never accept responsibility for relationships starting or ending, stuff just happens and we all have our destinies, quality relationships often send their protagonists off in different orbits, as it should be.  And fancy problems are a delight, to be sure, and you are lucky to get paid to solve them but there is nothing like the cacophony of cicadas at dusk or the relentless energies of a rushing creek to keep our spirits centered.  I try to strike a balance between income and harmony, erring on the side of harmony wherever possible.  There's not a traffic signal within 30km of here and that suits me fine, the ebb and flow of dusk and dawn seem to keep us regulated just fine so long as the bills get paid.  My 'chooks' understand that rhythm, they are merely chickens in the broad Australian vernacular, by the way.

Any suggestions on standardised mapping methodologies for complex systems, by the way?  I am considering some ideas for computer game designs of asymetrical conficts and am trying to get my head wrapped around 'Blender' at the moment, a necessary and challenging distraction.  So much to learn, so little time.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 07:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Funny that

Well, I am not so fortunate to be able to say that stuff happens... I did truly act like a jerk.  Maybe in my next lifetime, as another commenter said.

I have no idea on how to do your mapping application.  I am not a computer science guy... my work is on photonics.

Someday, my wife and I have discussed chucking this life, and moving to New Zealand...the south Island... somewhere close to Christchurch.  For reasons very similar to what you outlined.  I remember growing up with cows and chickens... and it was bliss!!

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-21 05:51AM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

Namaste to you as well.

Where in India were you, and what were you doing there ?

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 05:26PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

I was there for about four months. I landed in Mumbai (she'll always be Bombay to me), I took a train to Goa, then across and south to Madras, then a bus down to Pondicherry where I stayed at a commune called Auroville for a couple months. I went to there to surprise an ex girlfriend who is from there, knocked on her door, her brother answered and he let me know that she just left for the states. Oh well. He and I had a wonderful time.

How did I learn Hindi in Tamil country? There were several people who spoke Hindi there who taught me the langauge. The last two months I spent in a town near Nainital in the north (Hindi country).

Hindi is a brilliant written language. Strictly Phonetical and simple to learn. When I met people who were illiterate I often times offered to teach them to read. I told them it would only take a week or two if they dedicated the time to it. One of the best responses I received was "maybe in my next lifetime, thankyou". How can you not love that?

It does sadden me that over the last 15+ years I've lost the gift of Hindi.

by oc 2009-05-19 07:57PM | 0 recs
Re: I love India

Fascinating story!!

You may be interested in Laura Brueck, who is the daughter of a colleague.

She is now at Univ of Colorado...Prof. of Hindi Literature.

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-19 08:49PM | 0 recs
Re: India turns a corner

I think the elections validate the democracy of India more than any party. I have contempt for the Congress party as it is being held together for pure dynastic reasons. I just think it is insulting for a grown respected man like Manmohan Singh to be a virtual second in command to the party leader , Sonia Gandhi, who was pretty much a foreigner with no qualifications. They are already holding a place for her son to be the next leader when his time comes.

One great thing I will give India credit for is incumbents have a lot less security in India compared to the US especially when you look at our senators.

But the corruption among many ruling parties at the federal and state levels is still rampant.The average greed among chief ministers and the other ministers rivals that of the greediest US politician of either party.  

by Pravin 2009-05-19 10:01PM | 0 recs
Re: India turns a corner

Lotus Bloom - interesting. I posted something on Monday on the Congress and the BJP's vote share here: 14102.php

Embedded chart below...


Where did you get your vote share data? Looks like you've plotted the popular votes - and as I explain in my post, that is not as useful a metric as the % of seats won.

by eriposte 2009-05-20 05:56AM | 0 recs
Re: India turns a corner

Thanks... I liked your diary too.  Wish I had read it, but at least I discovered a new blog through this.

I got the vote share data from the two references printed on the chart.  I do not disagree that there is some value in looking at the % of seats won... personally, I prefer the vote share because the % of seats is skewed so highly towards the winner, and can fluctuate wildly even in the absence of large shifts in public opinion.

I think we read the events more or less the same, but have a slighly different take on the underlying reasons.  No matter... I am happy that someone else thinks that India has just turned a corner as well!

by Ravi Verma 2009-05-20 08:06AM | 0 recs


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