By Lee H. Hamilton
August 31, 2022
India celebrated 75 years as an independent nation this summer. That was an extraordinary milestone for the giant, diverse and democratic nation, one that was rightly celebrated around the world.
India is the world’s largest democracy, with 1.4 billion people, four times as many as the United States. From the start, skeptics said India was too big, too poor, and too fractured by religion and caste to endure as a democracy. Indians have proven the doubters wrong.
India has many problems, of course, including poverty, corruption, political polarization, climate change and some of the worst pollution in the world. Its democratic institutions are buffeted by religious divisions and animosity, much of it baked into history.
But India is a major and growing power in Asia and an important American ally. The U.S. and India have a strong partnership based on a shared commitment to democracy and the rules-based international order.
Trade in goods and services between the U.S. and India reached a record $157 billion in 2021. Four million Indian Americans live in the United States, and nearly 200,000 students from India attend U.S. colleges and universities, contributing $7.7 billion to the economy. More than three-fourths of Americans view India favorably, according to a Gallup poll.
India became independent on Aug. 15, 1947, following two centuries of British rule. It was a victory for the Indian freedom movement, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose tactics of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience inspired the U.S. civil rights movement a decade later.
But independence came at a cost. Britain, weakened by World War II, withdrew in a hurry, leaving the Indian subcontinent partitioned into two countries: largely Hindu India and Muslim majority Pakistan. There followed chaotic migration that displaced 12 million people along with religious horrific violence that killed 1 million. India and Pakistan remain adversaries and have fought inconclusive wars. Both now possess nuclear weapons.
Partition also casts a shadow on domestic politics. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014, represents the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has roots in Hindu nationalism. Reports of discrimination against India’s 200 million Muslims have increased. Political opponents and journalists have been harassed. Freedom House last year lowered India’s rating from “free” democracy to “partially free.”
India’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in the world, and the country has made considerable progress in reducing poverty. But democracy hasn’t brought the widespread economic growth that some citizens expect, and there is extreme inequality.
India is vulnerable to climate change, which has brought sweltering temperatures, increased flooding and drought, and more dangerous typhoons. Rising sea levels threaten coastal areas, including Mumbai and Chennai. Air pollution causes 2 million premature deaths a year, one study found. Water pollution and untreated sewage spread disease.
With Pakistan to its west and China to its north, India occupies a precarious position. Indian and Chinese troops have skirmished along disputed sections of the border. India has historically pursued a nonaligned foreign policy, reflecting its vulnerability to various powers. Dependent on Russia for energy, food and arms, Modi has resisted pressure to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet the United States relies on India as an Asian ally. Along with the U.S., Japan and Australia, India is part of the Quad, an informal security and economic alignment that came together in response to China’s increasing influence. We cooperate with India through the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the World Bank and other organizations.
India is an enormously important country, and it will likely become more important in the years ahead. We Americans have a real stake in its prosperity and stability. We need India as an ally, and the world needs its democracy to succeed.