The Compass

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Democracy and Development

Democracy and wealth tend to go together. Very poor countries are rarely democratic, wealthy ones rarely dictatorships. Debate rages over which is cause and which is effect, but in general the two seem to reinforce each other.

Which makes a recent argument published in the IHT by Anand Giridharadas, an Indian journalist, all the more interesting:

India was a country of ideas in its youth. At its moment of independence, 61 years ago on Friday, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that its dreams "are for India, but they are also for the world." India championed decolonization, nonalignment and disarmament around the world; it earned a reputation for haranguing philosophical lectures at the United Nations. In the salons of Delhi and Mumbai, an educated class that had come of age as freedom came to India spent long evenings debating the world and their place in it.

But in those days India was all ideas and no power. Today the situation is reversed. If one mingles with its affluent, reads its newspapers, observes its politics, roams its campuses, one sees in India what affluence has wrought: a turning inward, a slow-burn privatization of concern. This is globalization's great irony: It gives you influence in the world but then, with its gadgets and gizmos, distracts you from using it.

He goes on to lament the many ways that India's middle class has largely given up on politics and government, leaving India's democracy in an increasingly tenuous position.

I don't share Giridharadas's pessimism, but the logic of it is worth considering regardless. India has always been the great exception to the democracy-wealth correlation, managing to be both desperately poor and yet still a vibrant democracy. Will the strains of its growth prove too much for its system to handle? What happens when a poor democracy sprouts a middle class practically overnight?

China's unprecedented changes have rightly captured the world's attention. But India's evolution is just as unprecedented. It'll be interesting to see what new lessons about the interrelationships of economics and politics emerge from its development.