Last summer Foreign Affairs, Time, Newsweek, and The Economist highlighted a major shift in American perceptions of India when, in cover stories that appeared almost simultaneously, they described the country as a rising economic power and a likely “strategic ally” of the United States. In 1991, India partly opened its protectionist economy to foreign trade and investment. Since then agriculture, which employs more than 60 percent of the country’s population, has stagnated, but the services sector has grown as corporate demand has increased in Europe and America for India’s software engineers and English-speaking back-office workers. In 2006, India’s economy grew at a remarkable 9.2 percent.
Dominated by modern office buildings, cafés, and gyms, and swarming with Blackberry-wielding executives of financial and software companies, parts of Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Gurgaon resemble European and American downtowns. Regular elections and increasingly free markets make India appear to be a more convincing exemplar of economic globalization than China, which has adopted capitalism without embracing liberal democracy.
However, many other aspects of India today make Foreign Affairs‘ description of the country—“a roaring capitalist success-story”—appear a bit optimistic. More than half of the children under the age of five in India are malnourished; failed crops and debt drove more than a hundred thousand farmers to suicide in the past decade. Uneven economic growth and resulting inequalities have thrown up formidable new challenges to India’s democracy and political stability. A recent report in the International Herald Tribune warned:
Crime rates are rising in the major cities, a band of Maoist-inspired rebels is bombing and pillaging its way across a wide swath of central India, and violent protests against industrialization projects are popping up from coast to coast.
Militant Communist movements are only the most recent instance of the political extremism that has been on the rise since the early Nineties when India began to integrate into the global economy. Until 2004 the central government as well as many state governments in India were, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it in her new book,
increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. Many seek fundamental changes in India’s pluralistic democracy.
In 1992, the Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) gave early warning of its intentions when its members demolished the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in North India, leading to the deaths of thousands in Hindu–Muslim riots across the country. In May 1998, just two months after it came to power, the BJP broke India’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing by exploding five atomic bombs in the desert of Rajasthan. Pakistan responded with five nuclear tests of its own.
The starkest evidence of Hindu extremism came in late February and March 2002 in the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat. In a region internationally famous for its business communities, Hindu mobs lynched over two thousand Muslims and left …