Michael KreponIndia, Another Exceptional, Illiberal Democracy

Quote of the week:

“When you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Perfect it. Pass it on.” — Thurgood Marshall

My idea of India is dated, like me. I mourn its passing.  My idea of India first came into focus in the early 1990s. Eyes-wide-open, I stepped into a strange and foreign country. I embrace how India has changed for the better since then. But not everything has changed for the better.

I arrived on the subcontinent after the Cold War had ended. I had worked to prevent mushroom clouds between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now I carried the toolbox of confidence- and security-building measures to India and Pakistan. My game plan was to present this tool box and ask thoughtful and proud people to have a look, and to consider whether there might be something here worth adapting to the subcontinent’s special circumstances.

The India I read about was the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. I also read about the struggle for independence, and how Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement shamed Britain before the entire world. Satyagraha works when rulers have a conscience. It fails when they have no conscience. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s gift to us all. It produced a vibrant experiment in democracy and secularism.

Before me was a kaleidoscope of humanity. I had studied in Cairo after graduate school but still, nothing in my life prepared me for what I saw and experienced in India. The erudition, the cultures and mix of religions, the sheer life force of the place expanded my mind and my horizons.

This amazing patchwork quilt of regions, languages, peoples and religions was engaged in a halting and purposeful struggle toward a more perfect union. My country was, too, but the United States was monochrome compared to India. As hard as it was to fulfill the promise of America, this paled in comparison to India’s struggle to make a more perfect union.

This wasn’t just a noble struggle. I quickly understood that it was a practical one, too. India is so diverse and its weave so complicated, that for the country to thrive it had to bring everyone in. To borrow from V.S. Naipaul, India needed to accommodate continuous mutinies, mostly on a small scale. Except for Muslim-majority Kashmir, an on-going mutiny of geostrategic importance. It was a mutiny facilitated by New Delhi’s misrule, with a significant assist from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. The Kashmiri mutiny would test and define, more than anything else, India’s concept of itself.

If India were to become a more perfect union — a healthy, democratic, pluralistic, and secular society — New Delhi would have to quell the perpetual mutiny in Kashmir by peaceful, political means. The promise of India is intertwined with the promise of special status that the Indian Constitution granted to Jammu and Kashmir.

India’s strength lies in its diversity. So, too, does its weakness. The biggest threat to the India I have admired is a Hindu nationalist majoritarianism that disrespects India’s patchwork quilt. A secular, democratic India is a beacon to the world. A Hindu nationalist India is a work in progress, and an invitation to deeper mutinies.

Pakistan has made a mess of itself, while helping to make a mess of Kashmir. Aiding insurgency in Kashmir seemed to be a low-cost option, but near-term thinking has always been the bane of Pakistan’s existence. The promotion of violence in furtherance of national security objectives has been ruinous to Pakistan. What has Pakistan gained? The answer is painfully evident in the current state of Pakistan’s economic and political life. Its national security and international standing have shrunk considerably. Pakistan’s experiment in democracy has been subverted by dynastic politics and military interventions, leaving its people without the governance they deserve.

The tragedy of poor governance certainly isn’t confined to the subcontinent. It is part of a worldwide phenomenon. Tough men rule and break the rules. Beijing “re-educates” its Muslim population. Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the West Bank has provided a model to Modi. Moscow’s failings are masked by hyper-nationalist appeals and acts of subversion directed elsewhere. Leaders in Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, the Philippines and elsewhere violate democratic norms, or what’s left of them. And in my own beloved country, Americans are being set against each other in furtherance of narrow, nativist political ambition.

My responsibility as an American citizen is to help make my country a more perfect union, despite its growing failings. But I am not just an American citizen. I have been granted the gift of foreign travel and I have developed attachments. I love the idea of India that remains firmly rooted in my mind. My life has been enriched by friendships there. I also love Jinnah’s dream of Pakistan, which is now a distant memory. I have great respect for Pakistani friends who struggle to improve their governance. I have been fortunate to have visited Kashmir and spent time with Kashmiris. I grieve for them and for what India is becoming.

The world, within and outside of India, has become a far more brutish place. My friends, there is no time and space for despair. We have work to do, wherever we live.

Note to readers: This essay was published in slightly different form in South Asian Voices, an on-line magazine published by the Stimson Center. 


  1. M B (History)

    what ? me worry ?

  2. Raj Swamy (History)

    A rather boring and meandering article that sounds like a Bollywood tearjerker scene of a parent emotionally scolding a wayward child.

    The first mistake of the author is to see the matter an India-Pakistan one while in India. That’s the easiest way to not be taken seriously.

    India does not care about Pakistan – they’re fundamentally a nuisance and not an existential threat. It only cares about China, when it comes to strategic deterrence. You may not like it. You may not agree with it. But if you don’t accept it, you’ll NEVER be taken seriously in India.

    The Indian establishment will just see the author as fundamentally clueless about the primary imperative of Indian strategic thought, which has ALWAYS been China-centric.

    Question – what sort of competence does the author have at being part of the Indian strategic community ? Has he EVER published any works with Indian official think tanks ? What does the author have to demonstrate that the Indian strategic community – not the western one – takes him seriously when he talks about India ?

  3. Nikhil (History)


    Thank you so very much. I was shocked to read “I mourn its passing.” because I read it at not just the passing of your idea of India (“My idea of India is dated, like me.”) but of ANY idea of India. Including mine, having lived through more than a half of Nehru’s rule and also about a half of Indira’s rule.

    That India would continue as a legal entity is only nominally a hope. Modi has changed its legal definition and will keep changing it. Just what India it would be in spirit still remains to be seen. ModiShahi has begun to dismantle India even as it babbles “New India” and “Unity”:, and whether a genocide or a nuclear disaster is how India meets the dust remains to be seen.

    I am not a non-proliferation scholar. I was introduced to the subject by Gene Skolnikoff and Abram Chayes more than forty years ago and kept abreast of news and some scholarship, including yours, because of my work on energy and environmental policy and politics. Lately, Henry Sokolski, Peter Hayes, and David Albright keep complementing what I read of you and Stimson Center discussions.

    Which is why I found your last words inspiring and hopeful: “The world, within and outside of India, has become a far more brutish place. My friends, there is no time and space for despair. We have work to do, wherever we live.”

    Will try to catch up.