India and the Limits of Democracy

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Is India a democracy? (Not really)

“If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?”


You’ve likely heard that riddle.  Along the same lines, if a person lives in a society where they can vote, but they are not empowered to change or improve their own lives, for almost everyone life is the same desperate, desultory struggle every year, and government also happens to be corrupt, coercive, and in no position to offer support, can we say that person is “free?”  Is that really “freedom” or “democracy?”


India is extremely impoverished

Let’s start by considering India.  India’s per capita GDP is roughly $2,600 or 3% of America’s $80,400.  This means that, on average, an Indian has 3 cents for every dollar an American has.  Keep in mind, particularly over the long term, GDP growth is not just about money.  It means life is changing and improving—new technologies, new fields, jobs, careers, new educational opportunities and requirements, etc.  Plus, there is more money (income and wealth) which allow for spending, investing, retirement, etc.  In Advanced Economies like the US, most people regularly make decisions about education, occupation, employer, savings, investing, spending, traveling, etc.  They are economically empowered. 


Indians are not economically empowered to shape their own lives

This is not the case in a place like India.  There is little or no change in society year after year.  Generation after generation does the same job.  Relatively few can decide their occupation and the vast majority do not have enough empowerment to make decisions about the course of their life or lifestyle.   They are stuck in the much the same life as their great grandparents.  For example, roughly 60% of Indians still survive (barely) as subsistence farmers and relatively few go to college.  It is likely that some people in India, if given the chance, would want to become a doctor or teacher or salesman and they might like travel or take up a hobby like flower gardening or photography.  But they can’t.  While they might theoretically be “free” to do these things, they are not practically empowered to do so. 


Furthermore, it should be mentioned that most people would consider these type of decisions to be the most critical and personal aspect of freedom—directing one’s own life.  That’s the type of freedom people would miss first and most if it were to end.  Simply put, Indians don’t have the freedom which is the most important aspect of freedom. 


Corruption is very high

Now let’s consider the Indian government and other aspects of society which impact people’s lives.  India has a low score on the Corruption Perception Index, lower than China and roughly at the level with most other LDC’s including Vietnam, Russia and others.  In other words, corruption is a huge problem in India, which is reinforced by the fact that India has repeatedly seen anti-corruption efforts launched with much popular approval and little practical effect. 


Criminals are directly involved in government

Given the level of corruption, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that direct criminal involvement in government is significant in India.  Analysis reveals that 44% of the members of India’s state legislatures have had criminal charges filed against them, with 28% relating to highly serious charges such as murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.  Interestingly, the analysis also reveals that

criminal candidates tend to be better financed than other candidates, perhaps indicating that political office truly is a profit-making enterprise. 


Police are not only corrupt but coercive as well

According to the NGO Freedom House, an estimated 1.2 Million Indians are tortured by police every year.  This coercive behavior is further evidenced by the fact that India has a long history of extrajudicial killings, i.e., police taking the law into their own hands and executing criminals.  More than 800 such killings were recorded from 2016-22. 


Extreme poverty also results in a host of societal ills

Beyond the above government-related challenges, India also has a slew of societal ills also mostly stemming from the endemic poverty. 


  • India has been referred to as the rape capital of the world. A survey by a major media outlet found India to be the most dangerous country in the world for a woman.  While rape is a problem in other countries as well, it seems to be particular acute in India. 
  • A government report in India revealed that 1.3 million women and girls went missing from 2019-2021. The study cited causes such as mental illness, domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and simply fleeing extreme poverty. While some disputed the true causes, it seems fair to say the problem is significant. 
  • Government estimates as to missing children in India range from roughly 50K to 230K per year. An NGO working against trafficking estimates 500K per year. The High Court in New Delhi, where the problem of missing children is especially acute, declared the subject to be of “extreme importance,” calling it “as bad as terrorism.”  Extreme poverty is likely the main cause.  Trafficking is also a factor and no doubt the two combine. 
  • India has long history of clashes between ethnic and religious communities. At the partition of India (majority Hindu) and Pakistan (majority Muslim) in 1947, an estimated 1-2 million people died in the resulting violence and migration.  Ethnic and religious conflict and violence has continued to plague India with major incidents every few years and constant tension.



Other forms of “Undemocratic Behavior” are rampant

Lastly, India experiences other types of behavior which would not be considered very democratic, including governmental actions designed to limit political competition and dissent.  Examples include the following:


  • Arresting political opponents: Human rights groups have cited an increase in arrests of non-violent political opponents such as professors and students; accusations include torture and fraudulent charges
  • Assassination: There are cases in both the US and Canada suggesting that the Indian government is behind the attempted assassination of Sikh leaders (2023).
  • Censorship: India leads the world in network shutdowns as it manages the internet to remove voices in opposition to the government
  • Unlikely Allies: India has continued to buy Russian oil and has a strong relationship with the regime which toppled the elected government in Myanmar. These positions are at odds with the Advanced Democracies.
  • Democracy Support Falling: Pew Research survey in 2021 said more Indians favor a “leader with a strong hand” than a “democratic form of government.”


The best answer is that India isn’t a democracy

Given the above conditions, is it correct to say that India is a democracy?  Frankly, I think the most accurate response is “NO.”  In no practical sense could we say that India functions as a democracy.  On the other hand, if the answer is “YES,” then we must add the corollary that, if India represents any kind of democracy, then clearly democracy itself is not sufficient to be a successful society.  India obviously has a long way to go in that regard. 


“Ineffective Democracy” is a good characterization

Scholars asking the same question have split the difference, coining terms like “ineffective democracy” and “dysfunctional democracy” to describe countries that combine the same combination of elements as India—elections but extreme weakness in the rule of law.   That’s a reasonable response.  But it begs the question—what does it take to make a democracy effective?


All low income countries have these same problems

The fact is, India is far from alone.  As is described in the accompanying essays on the Rule of Law, India’s problems—lack of empowerment among the people, corruption, coercive government, criminal involvement in government, anti-competitive electoral practices—are common in virtually all low income democracies, from Latin America to Africa and Asia.  Elections don’t solve these problems.  But economic development does.  Understanding this point, that economic growth is key to strengthening the rule of law and making democracy effective, is essential to reversing the decline in democracy worldwide.