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, Asia Briefing with Ramachandra Guha: India’s Modernization Journey

India is experiencing a massive transformation thanks to its young and aspiring population. Building a tolerant, liberal society in a highly diverse country with numerous ethnic, linguistic and religious groups is not an undertaking that moves in a straight line. There has been progress and regress, argued Indian historian Ramachandra Guha on April 24 at the Asia Briefing in Berlin.

As part of the Asia-Pacific Week, the author of the bestseller India after Gandhi spoke on the topic of “India’s Modernization Journey.” Using Gandhi’s four ideals of freedom – political democracy, social justice, cultural diversity and economic self-reliance – he reviewed his country’s achievements and failures.

Stable democracy with a tendency to become an “election-only” nation

India has long been considered difficult to govern because of its ethnic and religious diversity and its caste fractures. Contrary to this expectation, however, it has developed a stable democratic system over the last 70 years that guarantees free and fair elections for the country’s population, including underprivileged and less-educated groups.

This is one of the major achievements in India’s brief history, Guha emphasized, and it applies in particular if one considers the country’s difficult position when it was founded 70 years ago.

If India had been a start-up in 1947, not even the most reckless investors would have invested in it.
Ramachandra Guha, 2018

However, due to its short legislative terms, India is also at risk of becoming an “election-only” democracy, Guha noted.

Caste system becoming less important

The caste system in India is slowly but noticeably losing importance, something Guha illustrated with concrete examples. Although members of low castes and women are still discriminated against across India, especially in rural areas, there has been a persistent, incremental and irreversible loosening of the link between caste and work and between family and arranged marriages. This slow but noticeable progress is indeed taking place, although it often goes unrecognized, even in India, said Guha.

Picture: Murali Nair (Senior Project Manager BSt) and Ramachandra Guha (Author and Indian Historian)

Nationalist tendencies are increasing

Guha described the increasingly nationalist movements in India as one of the biggest challenges his country faces today. The quest for a monolithic national and cultural identity is currently being supported by Modi’s government and the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The historian described this development as a step backwards for his country and warned against following a path similar to the one taken by India’s neighbour Pakistan. There will be no sustainable progress without a pluralistic approach, Guha said.

Economic self-reliance is also partially successful

India’s economy also has two problem areas. First, the country faces the considerable challenge of generating growth based on job creation (as opposed to “jobless growth”). Second, the environmental problems in Indian cities have become alarmingly large, which is also having a negative impact on economic growth.

Faced with these challenges, India should not aspire to become a global superpower. The country, which is so diverse in ethnic, linguistic and religious terms, should confront its internal problems instead, Guha said, concluding his remarks.

An interview with Ramachandra Guha can be viewed here.