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 and his re-election prospects for 2019 have brightened following a big win in state elections. However, his plan to reinvigorate the economy is testing India’s maturing democracy in a way that may alter its strong secular and socialist traditions.
Modi has gotten mixed reviews since his party won the first majority in the lower house of parliament in 30 years in 2014. On the plus side, he’s opened millions of bank accounts for the poor, cleared the path for a national sales tax that would transform India into a single market and attracted more foreign direct investment. India has also eclipsed China as the world’s fastest-growing major economy. He’s seen a number of setbacks, however. Economists have questioned the motives for an unprecedented clampdown on cash, designed to tackle black money. Proposals to ease land and labour rules have gone nowhere and opponents of his Bharatiya Janata Party have highlighted its pro-Hindu agenda.
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 say he takes measures that increase safeguards for India’s tycoons and fails to move against religious factions of his party, which oppose much-needed labour reform and want to erode the country’s secular foundations.