Sharing India’s democratic talents

What can emerging democracies learn from India’s democratic tradition?

In Japan, prime minister Narendra Modi ruffled Chinese feathers when he praised Indian and Japanese democracy. At least one American paper, the Wall Street Journal, noted that Modi’s description of Japanese and Indian democracy as a ‘light’ contrasted to the ‘darkness’ of China.  “If Japan and India get together, we can always proceed in a positive direction,” said Modi. “We should work together and let the world know what democracy is, and what democratic values stand for.” The comment elicited a sharp response from state-controlled Chinese media.


This moment of drama on Modi’s first trip to Japan since his election as Prime Minister in the largest election in history could be written off as a mere rhetorical flourish. Whether in India or outside, we have all been saturated in praise for Indian democracy over the last year. While Indians have been justifiably proud of its democratic accomplishments, this may be one of the first times that an Indian leader so openly talked about that democratic tradition outside of India.

But let’s take that thought just a little more seriously for a moment and consider what benefits India’s democratic tradition could offer to India’s external policy. India’s new generation of political strategists should strive to work in other countries, sharing what has been learned in the world’s largest democracy. Additionally, India should consider creating a democracy foundation based on the model of institutions in the US, UK, Germany, and other countries to share India’s experience of democracy with the rest of the world.

One is not saying that India should run around the world with a triumphalist sense of its own democratic tradition, like the United States has been accused of, sometimes rightly.  But it can be recognised that the problems that India has wrestled with look much more like the problems that emerging democracies are facing today than the problems that rich, Western countries wrestled with (or pretend that they didn’t wrestle with). India’s lessons are much more relevant to the world than those of the US or Europe.

For example, many of the emerging democracies are multi-ethnic, multi-language, multi-religious emerging economies. This often means that the process of building a sense of nation has to happen at the same time as the process of building a democracy. Countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, — to name just a few, but a very important few — together constituting about half a billion people, all share these characteristics with India but have much weaker and younger democratic institutions than India. And then there are countries much closer like Burma and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, campaigning in India looks a lot more like campaigning in these places. While lessons can always be learned from any innovative campaign, one has to wonder what is more relevant to the rest of the world, Barack Obama’s innovative campaigns of 2008 and 2012 or Narendra Modi’s innovative campaign of 2014? Strategies and tactics built around India’s internet and smartphone penetration of around 15 percent are much more relevant than the US case that is nearly 100 percent. Any conversation with the people inside companies like Facebook and Google during the Indian election made it clear that they were more interested in figuring out how Indians were using the technology than teaching them how to use it. (This contrasts to ways in which American models are often translated into other rich world contexts to varying effect.)

Just consider the ways in which India’s democratic ecosystem is unique. Not only does India have one of the oldest and most stable democracies of the post-colonial era, with a record of both success and failure to learn from. It also has one of the most dynamic laboratories of democratic practice. Due to its innovative culture, especially in globally competitive skills in technology and management, new organising methods have been created and deployed in its politics. Due to its size, these get deployed and tested and redesigned at a scale that simply no one else can match. Due to its diversity, it has organised communities of all sorts from marginally literate tribals to sophisticated urban elites.

This means that Indian democracy has lessons for many of the countries struggling to build their own democratic systems. And India’s history means it can deliver these lessons without the implicit colonial arrogance from which Europeans and Americans cannot escape.

But why does this matter? How does this help India? Here, Western examples and institutions hint at some options. Many senior political strategists have gone between various (especially English language) rich countries to share their experiences. American strategists have faced off in UK and Israeli elections. Australian and Canadian strategies have shared incredible insights with other countries in the Commonwealth. These create networks of communications between political elites across countries that make it much easier to coordinate policy and political activities at later dates.

One could easily imagine talented BJP advisors working in these countries and building much deeper links that could give more political options to leaders like Modi. These same campaign advisors could make good money sharing the lessons in other countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., in the mean time further professionalising their skills. This experience could also provide a strong competitive advantage for Indian campaign, public affairs, and communications professionals to work on private sector projects, and create a new, powerful form of service-sector exports.

Western countries like the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, along with the European Union separately, have created “democracy foundations” to provide institutional support for many of these skills as technical and capacity building. In the US, it is the National Endowment for Democracy and organizations it funds such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, associated with the major political parties. In Germany, each party has a foundation associated with it such as the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and the Hans Boll Stiftung, all of which operate in India and are associated with the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats, and the Green party, respectively. The UK has the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. These foundations all serve to channel national talent and resources into alignment with development agendas (and national interest).

India could establish an Indian Institute for International Democracy on these models to leverage and channel the experience and resources it has and ensure that they are deployed in India’s national interest. Ultimately, the purpose of this institution would be to establish Indian democratic practice as a source of soft power, like India’s entertainment industry, and its educational system (with its grounding in English.)

“All I think is required is a small light of peace, prosperity and democracy,” said Modi in Japan. This is a message that can only be delivered by a rising India, justifiably proud of its accomplishments and letting them speak for themselves. It is time for India to share the light from its lamp with the rest of the world.

Photo: Ruben Alexander