In India’s 75-year history as an independent country, two political parties have, at different times, dominated its public life: the Congress Party, from independence in 1947 to the 1990s; and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for most of the twenty-first century. From a Western perspective, each party has exhibited a particular strength and a particular weakness while in power. The Congress Party installed a democratic political system when the country became independent, with free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and the protection of the rights of minorities. The BJP, by contrast, has violated democratic norms but done better in managing the nation’s economy. The political and economic history of independent India’s first three-quarters of a century thus becomes a study in contrasts.
Ashoka Mody, an Indian-born economist who has worked at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and now teaches at Princeton University, sees that history differently. In his account of India since 1947, India Is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today, a book that combines the passion of a jeremiad with the clinical precision of an economic treatise, complete with many charts and graphs, he argues that a baleful, indeed disastrous continuity has marked, and marred, India’s post-independence history. For 75 years successive Indian governments, in his telling, have failed to deliver what matters most in the life of any country: a decent standard of living made possible by the availability of good jobs. As a result, by his estimate, fully sixty percent of India’s 1.4 billion people live either in abject poverty or on the brink of it.
Mody credits Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister during the formative years 1947 to 1964, as being a
humane nationalist who believed in the norms of equality, tolerance, and shared progress. For him, the practice of these norms meant more democracy, secularism, and socialism, properly understood as equality of opportunity.
Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, however, who held that office from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, departed from democratic practices by imposing authoritarian rule for twenty-one months from 1975 to 1977, a period known as “the Emergency.” She also opened the way to the corruption that pervades Indian public life today, which includes an unhealthy penetration of government by organized crime throughout the country.
On economic matters, Nehru adopted a strategy for growth that emphasized large industrial projects within India’s borders. He spurned reliance on labor-intensive manufacturing for export, which would have created jobs on a far larger scale. The export-oriented approach that he rejected started the rapid economic growth that the countries of East Asia, notably Japan and China, enjoyed in the decades after World War II. In this way Nehru’s economic ideas hampered India’s economic progress.
As for the BJP, it has shown little regard for some of the basic tenets of democratic governance. Its Hindu-nationalist ideology has led to discrimination, and worse, against India’s 80 million Muslims. It has harassed independent journalists and recently managed to have the leader of the Congress Party–Rahul Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s grandson–sentenced to prison on a trumped-up charge.
The BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, boasts of the country’s economic achievements under his leadership–building, to be sure, on liberalizing reforms instituted by a Congress government in 1991 under the pressure of a balance of payments crisis. Ashoka Mody is not impressed with the BJP’s economic record, however, depicting its stewardship as a species of crony capitalism that has conferred favors and advantages on wealthy members of the business community in return for the government’s political and financial support.
The author identifies the vast majority of Indians as losers from the BJP’s policies, as they were from those the Congress carried out. Throughout its independent history, India has failed to generate the jobs necessary for popular well-being because, as Mody sees it, the Indian government has consistently failed to invest adequately in the public goods that job-creation on the necessary scale requires, above all primary and secondary education, public health, and urban infrastructure. He also criticizes the reluctance of successive Indian governments, motivated by a particular definition of national pride and honor, to devalue the national currency, the rupee. This made the country’s exports more expensive than they should have been and so limited what India was able to sell to other countries.
The combination of wrongheaded economic policies, corruption, and crony capitalism, the author concludes, has enriched a few Indians–the country does have its share of billionaires–but has blocked the kind of economic progress that other Asian countries have made since World War II.
To be sure, India’s record in its first seventy-five years is not an entirely bleak one. The country does have some impressive achievements to its credit. Not the least of them is its continued existence as a single, unified state despite the many differences among its people. Indians speak, for example, twelve major languages and many other lesser dialects. This unity has no historical precedent. A united and independent India within its present borders never existed before 1947.
India has persisted, as well, as a democracy, despite the BJP’s encroachments on the liberties of some of its citizens. It continues to hold free and largely fair elections. In a recent one, in the important southern state of Karnataka, the voters evicted the BJP from office. That outcome points to another salient feature of twenty-first-century India: political and economic conditions are not uniform across the country. On most measures of individual well-being, the south ranks higher than the north.
India’s GDP has grown by between three and 4.5 percent since the 1980s, an eminently respectable performance; and while GDP is not necessarily the definitive measure of national well-being, it does count for something. By far the greatest number of Indians work in agriculture, and Indian farmers, while beset with difficulties, have done better in feeding the country’s population in recent years than was the case at the time of independence.
Furthermore, the digital revolution has come to India, which had 1.2 billion mobile phone subscriptions in 2022. Virtually all Indians have a digital ID number that they can use for financial and other transactions. The country has a thriving high-tech sector, although it employs only a tiny fraction of the country’s work force; and its elite educational institutions–while also accessible to only a very few–produce graduates as skillful, sophisticated, creative, and generally impressive as any in the world, although many choose to live and work abroad, not least in the United States.
In the midst of these undoubted national successes, however, the glaring failure at the center of Mody’s history stands out. In providing a decent life for the masses of its people, the country lags behind not only the West, Japan, and China but also, increasingly, behind countries historically poorer than India such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. For any Indian government in the years ahead, addressing that failure will loom as its most urgent challenge.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022).
Image: A map centered on India. (Unsplash: Joshua Olsen)
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