What India Can Teach America About Democracy

What should the U.S. be learning from other democracies?

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Indian military officers practice the un-hoisting of the Indian flag as the sun sets during rehearsals for the upcoming Beating Retreat ceremony at Raisina hill which houses India's most important ministries and the presidential palace in New Delhi, India,Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The ceremony is held annually on Jan. 29, marking the end of republic day celebrations.

The United States is often taken for granted as the world's exemplar of democracy. American policymakers are comfortable in that position. They tend to spend more time assuming that all eyes are on us than seeking lessons from beyond our borders.

But if America reversed its inward perspective, what would it see? Older cultures that are younger democracies may have more to teach us than we would like to admit. First on the list is India. The U.S. can benefit from looking at the ways that country faces its constitutional, demographic and strategic challenges.

Constitutionalism: Have Faith.

In his 1997 book "The Idea of India," Sunil Khilnani describes India's leaders establishing constitutional democracy "in a fit of absent-mindedness." Following partition and the end of British colonial rule, India's constitution was finalized in 1950. To date, India's constitutional lifespan is less than one-third that of the U.S. That amount includes a nearly two-year period (the "emergency" of June 1975 to March 1977) when Prime Minister Indira Ghandi suspended elections and civil liberties. In 1950, however, India adopted universal voting rights in a society where inequality had been codified culturally for centuries. Khilnani writes that no one knew how this "fundamental contradiction," inscribed in India's constitution, might be resolved. B.K. Ambedkar, then leader of India's "untouchables," said during a Constitutional Assembly in 1949: "In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality … How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril."

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The link Ambedkar cites between inequality and democratic health has appeared on many U.S. op-ed pages. There is a striking difference in U.S. and Indian perspective towards their respective constitutions. Khilnani describes the Indian constitutional process as a leap of faith. While historians like Gordon S. Wood have emphasized the "radicalism" of the American Revolution, one is more likely to find the U.S. constitution treated as holy writ rather than a human effort at better government.

The U.S. constitution has no better credential than the political stability it has produced. Rigid attitudes toward the constitution, however, have become barriers to change on issues with mainstream support (see health care reform, gun control and same-sex marriage) in America. One wonders whether a constitution like India's, which was more progressive than the culture that produced it, can serve its nation better by being more responsive to mainstream calls for reform. The U.S. took the 15th and 19th amendments and the Civil Rights Act to ensure universal voting rights. India accomplished it in the first draft.

Demography: Size and Diversity

At 1.2 billion people, India' population is equivalent in size to four Americas. Like America, it is a comparatively young nation. Half of the Indian population is below the age of 20. In India, the median age is 35 and droppingin the U.S., it is nearly 37.

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Demographers often point to young populations as sources of economic dynamism. A large working-age population supporting a smaller retirement age population is certainly preferable to the reverse. Population, however, can be a burden and a boon. India faces a similar challenge to China in developing its economy quickly enough to provide jobs for its growing young population. Its political stability depends upon it.

In his 2009 book "The Post-American World," Fareed Zakaria (in a chapter titled "The Ally") discusses the anticipation and confusion over what type of democratic power India will become. In part because of the economic strains of providing for its large population, Zakaria argues, India may not develop a level of military strength that could counter China's rise.

The structure of India's economy, on the other hand, may empower it. Zakaria details the rough composition of India's GDP: 50 percent services, 25 percent manufacturing and 25 percent agriculture. This is on par with nations such as Portugal and Greece that have higher average incomes and which lead India in manufacturing and agriculture, but trail it in services. This is a combination, Zakaria writes, "that no one could have planned." In other words, India's industrial base may need to catch up, but in 21st century technologies it is better suited to compete. Given the country's demographics, this is probably a better situation than the reverse.

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Strategy: Your Enemies Are Closer

The U.S. is bordered by two democracies. While deeply concerned with enemies abroad, it recently has not had to contend with adversarial neighbors. By contrast, India shares borders with China and Pakistan — both rivals and nuclear powers with whom it has clashed militarily. As noted above, India's economic demands may prevent it from acquiring military might to rival China. If money were no option, it is unclear if it would choose to do so. India founded the "non-aligned" movement and has prized its independence from what George Washington termed "entangling alliances." Its foreign policy has been driven by self-interest, and will likely remain focused on stability in Southeast Asia. America's relationship with India will go a long way toward securing its influence in the region.

America has a unique standing among world democracies. Its foreign policy has the broadest reach. It benefits the U.S., however, to examine the challenges facing the nascent democracies it looks to as allies. An outward-looking foreign policy that seeks better understanding of the challenges these regional allies face may help the U.S. improve its relations with them. In the process, the U.S. may also learn a few lessons abroad it can use at home.

Michael Crowley is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association. He has previously worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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