The odds against constructing a working democracy in India were great indeed. No other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages -- 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each -- the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices and the range of levels of economic development that India does.
In 1947, with as many as 1 million dead on both sides of the border, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees worth of property damaged and the wounds of sectarian violence still bleeding -- not to mention the challenges of administering a country newly freed from colonial rule, integrating the "princely states" into the new Indian union and reorganizing the divided armed forces -- India's leaders could have been forgiven if they had demanded dictatorial powers. Indeed, in many developing countries, nationalist leaders were to make precisely that argument, saying that only autocratic rule could weld a post-colonial shambles together into a modern state and claiming that the divisions that would be fanned by a raucous, multiethnic democracy would only impede development.
India went the other way: It made a strength out of its major weakness. To the American motto, "e pluribus unum," India countered, "e pluribus pluribum"! Instead of suppressing its diversity in the name of national unity, India acknowledged its pluralism in the way it arranged its own affairs: All groups, faiths, tastes and ideologies were to participate in the new system and contend for their place in the sun.
It wasn't always easy. India suffered caste conflicts, clashes over the rights of different linguistic groups, religious riots (mainly between Hindus and Muslims) and threats from separatists of various ethnicities. Despite many stresses and strains, including more than 1 1/2 years of autocratic rule during a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multiparty democracy -- freewheeling, rumbustious, sometimes corrupt and inefficient, but nonetheless flourishing -- India has remained.
It helped that India's founding fathers, from Mohandas K. Gandhi on, were convinced democrats. India's first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spent a political lifetime trying to instill the habits of democracy in his people: a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system.
As prime minister from 1947 to 1964, Nehru carefully nurtured the country's infant democratic institutions by showing them respect and even deference. To take just one example, on the one occasion that he publicly criticized a judge at a news conference, he apologized the next day to the individual and wrote an abject letter to the chief justice of India, regretting having slighted the judiciary. Though there was no serious challenger to his authority, he never forgot that he derived his power from the people of India, and he remained astonishingly accessible for a person in his position.
By his own personal example, Nehru imparted to the institutions and processes of Indian democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants. Perhaps the greatest threat to democratic rule came from, of all people, his daughter, Indira, who suspended India's freedoms with a state of emergency from June 1975 to February 1977 after a conviction on a relatively minor election fraud charge and mounting public disorder threatened her government. Yet, ultimately, she felt compelled to return to the Indian people for vindication, held a free election and lost it.
In India, democracy today is not an elite preoccupation. Whereas in the United States poor people are far less likely to vote than wealthy people -- just half of those with family income under $50,000 a year voted in the 2004 presidential election, as compared with about 78% of Americans earning $100,000 or more -- in India the poor turn out in great numbers, often spending hours in the hot sun waiting to cast their votes.
Though Indian democracy is no less immune to sectarianism or identity politics than other countries (it's said that when Indians cast their vote, they often vote their caste), the idea of India that its people have come to accept is of one land embracing many.
India dealt with religious differences, for instance, by embracing them, permitting all religions to flourish while ensuring none was privileged by the state. This included the granting of group rights, under which Muslims have their own "personal law" to govern their marriages, divorces and death, distinct from the common civil code. If the U.S. is a melting pot, then India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls, but on one plate, combining to make a meal.
No one speaks seriously anymore of the dangers of disintegration, which, for years, India was said to be facing. Separatist movements in places as far-flung as Tamil Nadu and Mizoram have been defused. The formula is simple: Yesterday's secessionists became today's chief ministers (the equivalent of U.S. state governors) and (thanks to the vagaries of politics) tomorrow's leaders of the opposition.
The explosive potential of caste division also has been channeled through the ballot box. The power of electoral numbers has given high office to the lowest of India's low. Who could have imagined, over the last 3,000 years, that an "untouchable" woman would rule as chief minister of India's most populous state? Yet Kumari Mayawati has done that three times in Uttar Pradesh and now enjoys a secure majority.
The result is that no one identity has triumphed in India: The logic of the electoral marketplace makes it impossible. Three years ago, after the awe-inspiring experience of the world's largest exercise in democratic elections, India saw a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister of India by a Muslim (then-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) -- in a country that is 81% Hindu. (This when the world's oldest democracy has not yet elected a president who is not white, male and Christian.)
Over the years, democracy has sustained a larger idea of India, an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity. While imperfect, democracy in India has served to knit together a country that many thought would not survive, and whose 60th birthday is therefore well worth celebrating.
Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations undersecretary-general, is the author of "India: From Midnight to the Millennium" and "Nehru: The Invention of India." His new collection of essays on India, "The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone," will be out this week.