Thursday, January 1, 2009

World's Largest Democracy

Barack Obama received more than 69,000,000 votes in the presidential election. That is an all-time record. An impressive result, but what about a country in which the party with the highest vote total received 103,000,000 votes at the last parliamentary general election, with that being only 27% of the overall total?

In case you haven't guessed already, I'm referring to India. With their next general election coming up soon, I'm starting a series of posts on the political system of the world's largest democracy.

India's parliamentary system is similar to that of the United Kingdom, of which it used to be a colony. One aspect of that is that a general election date is determined by the prime minister, as I described here in the British context. The deadline for the next Indian general election is May 2009.

By the 16th century, European powers were trading with India, and they eventually came to vie for political control of the Indian Subcontinent. The main contenders were the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. The British gradually came out on top in that competition. The BBC website gives further detail on that process.

Not all that surprisingly, British domination of India was controversial. Here, the BBC describes a major rebellion against British rule in 1857. Then, the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. By the early 20th century, the Congress had become the vehicle for an independence movement.

That movement's best-known figure was Mohandas Gandhi. Often called "Mahatma", which means "Great Soul", Gandhi advocated non-violent resistance to British rule.

The independence movement finally achieved success in 1947. But all did not go smoothly for either Gandhi or his followers.

The population of colonial India included large numbers of both Hindus and Muslims. So the main issue at the time of independence was how to deal with those disparate cultures. The solution was to partition the Indian subcontinent into two states, a largely Hindu India, and a largely Muslim entity called Pakistan.

The phrase "ethnic cleansing" was coined several decades after that partition, but it could plausibly be applied to ensuing events. There was mass migration of Hindus out of Pakistan and Muslims out of India (although a significant Muslim population remains there to this day). The process was accompanied by violence which resulted in a death toll that has been estimated in the range of 200,000 to 1,000,000.

This article on Emory University's website gives more detail regarding the partition.

In terms of its peaceful intent, and violent reality, the partition resembled a somewhat similar division of Palestine that was implemented the following year.

Violence also struck Gandhi directly. He was fatally shot by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948. Godse was a Hindu extremist who apparently felt that Gandhi had been too conciliatory toward the Muslim side in the partition debate. Gandhi had sought peaceful resolutions to both the Anglo-Indian dispute, and Hindu-Muslim religious hatred.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and this BBC report, on the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's death, addresses criticism of Gandhi.

I will describe the political system and history of independent India in future posts.

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