India’s Aspirations

Reshaping the World's Biggest Democracy

By | Updated June 7, 2016 4:44 AM UTC

India’s democracy, the world’s most populous, is a marvel of the modern age: 1.3 billion people who speak more than 700 languages uniting under one roof. Its immensity also slows the decision-making needed to keep up with its people’s aspirations. Feeble public services, high inflation, crippling corruption and crumbling infrastructure are ever-present grievances of an increasingly fed-up population, most of whom live on about $3 per day. Indians yearn for better education, more jobs and faster development as a path to prosperity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was swept to power in 2014 offering a change of course. His plan to reinvigorate the economy offers a test of India’s maturing democracy, one that may alter its strong secular and socialist traditions.

The Situation

Modi has gotten mixed reviews since his party won the first majority in the lower house of parliament in 30 years. On the plus side, he’s opened millions of bank accounts for the poor, implemented market-based energy pricing, brought electricity to villages and started a manufacturing push with the slogan “Make in India” that has attracted more than $400 billion of investment pledges. India has also eclipsed China as the world’s fastest-growing economy. He’s also seen a number of setbacks, however. Opponents who control India’s upper house of parliament have blocked a goods-and-services tax that would make the nation a single market for the first time. Proposals to ease land and labor rules have gone nowhere. His Bharatiya Janata Party has struggled in state elections, in part because opponents highlighted its pro-Hindu agenda. Modi last year faced criticism for failing to quickly condemn the public lynching of a man accused of eating beef, which his adversaries say is emblematic of a renewed threat to India’s traditions of tolerance and public debate.

The Background

Jolted by a balance-of-payments crisis caused by four decades of Soviet-style economic planning, India changed course in 1991 to embrace foreign investment and set the stage for an economic boom. The Congress-led government and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty redistributed the wealth, expanding subsidies for the poor fivefold over the last decade. The spending provided subsidized food, free education and even guaranteed work in rural areas, where about 70 percent of the population lives. The share of people living below India’s official poverty line was cut by more than half to 22 percent. Per-capita income rose to $1,240 in 2013 from about $250 in 1992, though that success still pales in comparison to China’s. Modi’s BJP consolidated the Hindu vote in the 1990s and led the government from 1998 to 2004, when it pursued a partial privatization of state companies. After more than a decade in office, the rival Congress Party suffered its worst-ever performance in the 2014 election amid allegations of graft and economic mismanagement. Still, the vote was divisive: Parts of the population will never forgive Modi for his handling of riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the western state of Gujarat, where the 65-year-old ruled as chief minister for 13 years. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have played a defining role in politics since Britain divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. Hindus make up about 80 percent of the population, while 13 percent are Muslim.

Source: Government of India Planning Commission

The Argument

India’s democracy has traditionally divided spoils along the lines of religion and caste. As aspirations of an expanding urban population rise, the divisions are now more about ideas: how to power faster development, the appropriate role and size of the state, how to weed out corruption and new ways to deliver public services. Modi’s supporters see him as a leader who can transform India by shifting toward a more market-based economy and empowering those at the bottom of the country’s ancient caste system. His critics doubt that he’ll take measures that increase competition for India’s tycoons or move against religious factions of his party, which oppose opening the economy to foreign companies and want to erode the country’s secular foundations.

The Reference Shelf

First published April 2, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Daniel Ten Kate in New Delhi at

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Leah Harrison at
Grant Clark at