Unity in Diversity: Political and Economic Trends in India

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PRAKASH SHAH HAS SERVED as India's ambassador to the United Nations in New York since February 1995. In his 34 years as an Indian diplomat, he has held a number of other positions, including a recent three-year term as ambassador to Japan. He has represented India extensively in international fora on issues of disarmament, petroleum, trade, and international law, and has had assignments in such regions as the Persian Gulf, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Features Editor Shirin Sinnar interviewed Ambassador Shah in early April on current issues facing India and South Asia.

Harvard International Review: Some observers look at the separatist movements and communal conflicts that India has faced and see a nation riven by internal strife. Others argue that the very fact that India has held together as one nation for almost fifty years, in spite of such integral threats, is a sign of the strength of its government and political system. How divisive or cohesive is India today?

The concept of "unity in diversity" can perhaps best describe India today. Given the diversity in the languages, customs, traditions, and religious beliefs in India, there are bound to be divergent approaches and differences of opinion on various issues. This may require a fairly protracted process of decision-making to accommodate the variety of competing interests. Some observers consider these competing interests as symptoms of internal strife, and highlight them as a weakness. But it can also be seen in light of the difficult but necessary process of forging unity through the democratic process. Through India's political system, a broad consensus emerges on most policy issues, especially foreign policy and economic policy. International observers tend to exaggerate the centrifugal tendencies in India. Every time a group of fifty men get together and make a demand of the central government, people abroad will brand it a separatist movement, like the Khalistan movement. The problem in Punjab is today solved, and people in the state can express their will through local elections.

India has functioned as a vibrant democracy ever since its independence because the constitution provides for a framework in which differences can be resolved. It provides for a structure where different political parties can co-exist in power in different federal units. India might be the only country where parties across the entire political spectrum have been in power in different federal units, from the left to the center to the right, at the same time. The parliamentary form of government provides opportunities for representation in the legislature and the executive branch of persons from different regions. The independent judiciary has functioned as the guardian of the rights guaranteed by the constitution and has repeatedly intervened in cases of executive or legislative excess to inspire confidence that justice will be done. The free press has effectively performed the watchdog functions essential in a democratic polity. It is these institutions which have ensured that dissent is expressed within a constitutional framework and that deviations from the accepted norms are limited to the fringes. There is an overwhelming consensus that lunatic, extremist, or violent fringe movements must be dealt with firmly within the rule of law.

The rise of Hindu nationalism, as manifested by the growth of such parties as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, has generated mixed predictions about the future of Indian secularism. Is the rise of such parties in recent years a threat to secularism?

Secularism is a cardinal principle enshrined in the preamble and body of the Indian constitution. The Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the constitution specifically provide for non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, and creed. All candidates competing in Indian elections have to pledge their allegiance to the constitution. …