India – Protecting the World’s Largest Democracy

This month, India celebrated sixty seven years of independence from British rule. Almost seven decades ago many ridiculed the idea that a stable democracy could be established in so poor, vast and diverse a country. A senior British official, observing India’s first general election, reflected the views of many in the British establishment when he wrote, ‘A future more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people.’

As Indians mark their 67th Independence Day, they have much to celebrate. Not only has the world’s largest democracy endured, but it appears that strong economic growth has at last begun to make a real dent on India’s chronic poverty. Although disputed, the latest government figures suggest that poverty has been cut by a third since 2004.

Despite this recent success, however, chronic levels of poverty persist. In the public imagination the image of a starving child is most frequently associated with Africa, but in reality it is India which is host to the worst under-nourishment in the world. The level of poverty can be seen in an analysis carried out by The Economist in 2011, which matched each of India’s states with a country at a similar level of economic development. India’s large northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were shown to have living standards comparable to those in Kenya, Eritrea, Benin and Sudan respectively.

Many, including renowned historian Ramachandra Guha and Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, are now voicing concerns that such high levels of poverty and inequality are fuelling increasing levels of violence and corruption, and corroding the institutions of India’s democracy.

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