Similarities between the U.S. and Indian include incredible diversity

Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor
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The United States and India can both lay claim to the title of being the world’s largest democracy — albeit by different metrics. The United States for its economy, and India for the number of people it is home to. I was brought up in India, but have spent the majority of my adult life in the U.S. As such, I can’t help but compare and contrast the Indian and U.S. experiences.

In some ways, they couldn't be further apart. India is chaotic and messy; things rarely work as they're supposed to and are never as they seem. The U.S. experience, by comparison, is so much cleaner, more organized, and seamless. And yet, I’ve found so many direct parallels on issues that I can’t help but think of these two nations as brothers with fundamentally similar world views. I used to think no other country could contain as many colors of skin, as many religions, and as many different points of view as India; then I came to the U.S. I used to think that the U.S. government system was a model of efficiency on a large scale. Now I know that the U.S. system faces many of the same issues that the Indian system does — from too much bureaucracy, to an electorate too polarized to agree on anything, to dangerous demagogues exploiting public fear and ignorance to build support.

Constitutionally, unlike the U.S. presidential style, India has a parliamentary democracy. The Indian president is a figurehead whose every action must be ‘at the advice’ of the prime minister — the real leader of the electorate. When Indians vote in a general election, they aren't voting for either a president or a prime minister. They’re voting for members of parliament (MPs) to represent their constituency. These MPs then elect a prime minister from amongst themselves, who then picks MPs for his cabinet.

India has two large national level parties, the BJP and the Congress, and more smaller parties than one can count. One advantage of so many political options is that there are people on every side of every issue, instead of two opposites and nothing else. One disadvantage is that it is hard for any party to have a majority. India has had coalition governments for the better part of the past few decades, and such governments take their own sweet time building consensus before getting anything of any significance passed.

Just weeks ago, India instituted a goods and services tax (GST), passing the most extensive reform of its taxation code since independence — and the process was far from painless. The GST Bill was introduced by the current BJP government at the start of its term in early 2014. Negotiations between parties and campaigns for and against specific clauses of the bill continued in the media for more than two years. After concessions from every side, a significantly different bill from the 2014 version was passed with the unanimous support of every voting party in Parliament.

GST was a rare example of constant wrangling and negotiating yielding something worthwhile in the end. The BJP government has been trying even harder to get land reform passed; however, on an issue that polarizing it is unlikely to ever muster enough support. A more typical scene of Indian Parliament is protests and sloganeering washing out weeks worth of session time. India has also had no shortage of Donald Trump style ignorance predators. Some decades ago, a leader rose to power in north India on a promise to tear down the hydroelectric power plants in the region. He convinced large parts of the farming community that their crop failure was the fault of upstream hydroelectric plants, that these were sucking the energy out of the river water that was reaching their farms, and that this ‘lifeless’ water was killing their crops. Fortunately, no power plants were brought down, and the leader never won an election again.

The above described interplay of similarities and differences between the U.S. and Indian constitutions is found in culture and economics as well. The U.S. is undoubtedly far more progressive than India is today on many social issues. For example, homosexuality is just beginning to gain acceptance in India. Same-sex intercourse is still illegal, and yet LGBTQ people are gradually coming out of the shadows in open defiance of the law. Other important ideals, such as freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, are defended with just as much vigor in India as in the U.S. The government and opposition are constantly held accountable by the media. Even though India is a Hindu majority country, the colorful entertainment industry is dominated by Muslims. On some issues, such as gun control, India is actually more progressive than the U.S. Buying assault weaponry is virtually impossible in India. Buying any kind of weapon at all requires an extensive and effective background check.

All said and done though, the biggest and most important similarity between these two nations has got to be the incredible diversity they are both home to. In India, when I took the subway to school, I’d bump into people from every walk of life. I’d see Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and Parsis. I’d hear a dizzying array of languages — including English and Hindi, but also Tamil, Gujurati, Punjabi and so many more that I couldn't even dream of understanding. In India, I remember having around two to three public holidays every month, because every community, every religion and ethnicity has its own holidays, which must all be celebrated. When I came to the U.S., I saw the same thing in every class I took, every street I walked down, and every Starbucks I went to. This diversity is the greatest asset either country could ask for. Rarely does everyone agree. Entire communities argue all the time. But being exposed to opposing points of view forces everyone to challenge pre-existing assumptions and gradually nudges us to the conclusion that deep inside, we’re all the same — human beings with the same aspirations and insecurities.

In some ways, the U.S. is a young country. After all, it was founded just a couple of centuries ago. But it also happens to be one of the oldest democracies in the world. India, as a democracy, is just seventy years old. But as a civilization, the Indian subcontinent is millennia old. Both countries can learn so much from each other if they can acknowledge their differences and appreciate their similarities.