With such a diverse assortment of traditions, languages, religions and political views, what is striking about India is not the clash of divergent opinions and customs, but how well things work considering the manifold hurdles that arise. Despite challenges ranging from social welfare and caste politics to religious tensions and military squabbles with its neighbours, India continues to thrive as the most successful nation in South Asia and the largest democracy on Earth.
The Political Landscape
Prime Minister Narendra Modi surged to power in the 2014 federal elections, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored a landslide victory over the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) and its leader Rahul Gandhi, great grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Modi vowed to boost the economy with reforms and campaigns such as 'Make in India', which set out to encourage foreign companies to manufacture and invest in the country. This appears to have yielded some positive results. According to the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' ratings, India ranked at 77 among 190 global economies in 2018, up from 100th position in 2017 and 142nd in 2014. However one of Modi's most daring fiscal moves, the demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1000 banknotes in 2016 – to flush out black money – failed to achieve its objective, according to most analysts, and dampened economic growth following its announcement.
Although Modi has largely tried to keep the focus on developmental issues, his government has come under sharp criticism for failing to adequately curb brutal mob attacks – some resulting in death – on people (mainly Muslims) suspected of eating beef or transporting cows for slaughter. Cows are sacred to Hindus and cow slaughter is banned in many Indian states. Modi's government has also been criticised for not doing enough to alleviate the nation's agrarian crisis, which has seen numerous farmers commit suicide due to chronic financial stress.
When it comes to gender equality, India was placed at 130 out of 189 countries in the UN's most recent Human Development Index (HDI). Despite successive governments making some progress on female empowerment, women in India remain considerably less socially, economically and politically empowered than men. Additionally, the current government hasn't succeeded in curtailing violence against women, with many crimes still going unreported due to family pressure, social stigma and lack of confidence in the justice system. More positively, in 2017 the government passed legislation prohibiting the practice of talaq, whereby Muslim men could divorce their wives by merely saying 'talaq' three times.
Plentiful People And Rocky Relations
India is emerging as a global superpower, but its greatest resource – its 1.35 billion people – is also perhaps its greatest challenge. The country regularly ranks as the world’s fastest-growing economy, but almost a quarter of its vast population lives below the official poverty line, with less than US$1.90 of purchasing-power parity per day. With the population continuing to grow by around 1.2% – or 16.2 million people – per year, India faces an uphill struggle to ensure that the economic benefits of growth reach everyone.
India's growing power has also placed it in conflict with its neighbours. The traditional divide between China and India – the impregnable line of the Himalaya – is becoming increasingly porous as China expands its influence in Nepal and Pakistan to check Indian power in the region. China’s ongoing supply of military equipment to Pakistan is a further bone of contention. In 2015, China embarked on an ambitious infrastructure project to create the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which further cemented the impression that India is being hemmed in by its neighbour to the north. The US$60 billion CPEC project consists of a network of road and rail links and gas and oil pipelines that run through the Karakoram range to the Pakistan seaboard.
India–China relations have been further complicated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who lives in exile in Himachal Pradesh, along with members of the pre-1959 Tibetan government. Following the 1950 invasion by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, China claims all territory formerly administered by Tibet, and its government continues to dispute Indian ownership of parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin in Kashmir.
Chinese and Indian troops entered a tense standoff in Aksai Chin in 2013, before politicians negotiated an end to the dispute. A subsequent incursion by Chinese forces into Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 revived fears that China nurtures ambitions to claim the region it refers to as South Tibet. Relations dipped again in mid-2017, when there was a military border standoff between India and China over the disputed region of Doklam (located near the Indian state of Sikkim), which is claimed by both China and India's ally, Bhutan. After weeks of deadlock, India and China agreed to withdraw troops, but tensions and distrust remain high.
The Pakistan Files
Decades of deadly border skirmishes between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir have long cast a shadow over the subcontinent. Contentious Kashmir has plagued India–Pakistan relations since Partition in 1947, and the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley is still claimed in its entirety by both countries, with a separate movement championing an independent state.
The dispute has sparked three India–Pakistan wars – in 1947, 1965 and 1971 – and a string of incursions and firing incidents across the Line of Control (LOC), which have killed tens of thousands of civilians on both sides of the divide. It's also cited as a motivation for many of the terrorist attacks carried out in India by Islamist militants. The government of Pakistan provides shelter – and, India alleges, financial, military and technical support – for armed groups that have carried out attacks in India, including raids on Indian Army barracks near the India–Pakistan border.
A lull in tensions in 2008 led to talks that might have created an autonomous region, but the situation deteriorated rapidly after terrorists killed at least 163 people during three days of coordinated bombings and shootings in Mumbai. The one sniper caught alive, a Pakistani, had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that formed to assist the Pakistan Army in Kashmir in the 1990s and which has been implicated in dozens of attacks within India.
When former cricket legend Imran Khan became prime minister of Pakistan in 2018, there were indications that peace initiatives may resume afresh. However, relations soured after talks were abruptly cancelled by Prime Minister Modi, due to the killing of three Indian security personnel in Kashmir by suspected Pakistan-based militants. Delhi accused Islamabad of not being genuinely committed to halting cross-border terrorism, a charge that Prime Minister Khan vehemently denied. Since then, despite some progress over access for Sikhs to pilgrimage sites in Pakistan, bilateral relations have remained icy.