India’s greatness lies in its self-reliant and resilient people. They are able to pull themselves up and survive, even flourish, when the state fails to deliver. . . . Indian entrepreneurs claim that they are hardier because they have had to fight not only their competitors but also state inspectors. In short, India’s society has triumphed over the state.
But in the long run, the state cannot merely withdraw. Markets do not work in a vacuum. They need a network of regulations and institutions; they need umpires to settle disputes. These institutions do not just spring up; they take time to develop. The Indian state’s greatest achievements lie in the noneconomic sphere. The state has held the world’s most diverse country together in relative peace for 57 years. It has started to put a modern institutional framework in place. It has held free and fair elections without interruption. Of its 3.5 million village legislators, 1.2 million are women. These are proud achievements for an often bungling state with disastrous implementation skills and a terrible record at day-to-day governance.
. . . . Even though the reforms have been slow, imperfect, and incomplete, they have been consistent and in one direction. And it takes courage, frankly, to give up power, as the Indian state has done for the past 15 years. The stubborn persistence of democracy is itself one of the Indian state’s proudest achievements. Time and again, Indian democracy has shown itself to be resilient and enduring — giving a lie to the old prejudice that the poor are incapable of the kind of self-discipline and sobriety that make for effective self-government. To be sure, it is an infuriating democracy, plagued by poor governance and fragile institutions that have failed to deliver basic public goods. But India’s economic success has been all the more remarkable for its issuing from such a democracy.
I especially liked the observation that it takes courage to give up power. Democacy requires a deferential libertarian vision as much as an assertive one.