Wisdom of the Crowd

What 1.2 billion Indians think about democracy, America, and the world. 

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

With 1.2 billion people and counting, India is projected to become the most populous country on the planet by 2030. Amazingly, we have long known very little about what the citizens of this democratic behemoth think about their future in the world. For decades, the country’s foreign and security policies have been defined and driven by the preferences of a tiny elite — notably, a professional diplomatic service numbering in the mere hundreds. Now, a comprehensive new opinion survey sheds light on the worldview of Indians from all levels of society — urban and rural; educated and illiterate; young and old; rich, poor, and aspirational.

So what do Indians like? Among other things, most like America, their military, and their democratic rights. What do they fear? Pakistan, China, and scarcity of energy, food, and water. What do they want? For starters, they want their government to do something about the country’s myriad problems — from advancing India’s interests abroad to maintaining social harmony and fighting corruption at home.

The poll provides stark and sometimes startling insights into Indians’ hopes and fears at a time when the narrative of the country’s unstoppable rise has been called into question ahead of national elections next year. It also illustrates the depth of Indian mistrust towards Asia’s other giant: China. Eighty-three percent of respondents consider China a threat to India’s security. But the poll also reveals Indians’ desire for that to change. Sixty-three percent of respondents would like to see relations with China improve, as opposed to just 9 percent who think ties are too close already and appear resolutely opposed to rapprochement. This, at least, should be good news for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who was in India this week to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The survey, carried out by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent Australian think tank, in partnership with the Australia India Institute, is based on face-to-face interviews conducted in late 2012 with 1233 adults in seven languages across 11 of India’s 28 states. Like all such surveys, it’s not perfect; its statistical margin of error is calculated to be 3.6 percent.

Even so, the results throw up some striking patterns, and not a few surprises. Forget stereotypes about Indians having an excess of national pride. It turns out that many instead have a sense of perspective, realism, and even humility about their country and its reputation. Only 23 percent of the poll respondents say they think India receives less respect from other countries than it deserves — while 36 percent think it receives too much.

Still, there is a surprising level of confidence in India’s economy, at least over the medium term. Despite a marked slowing in the country’s growth rate, 74 percent of respondents are optimistic about their economic prospects over the next five years. But Indians are divided about whether the fruits of growth are being justly distributed: While a narrow majority (56 percent) of Indians see themselves as economically better off than five years ago, about 18 percent feel worse off and 27 percent do not think their economic situation has changed.

And most Indians see major problems looming on the horizon. Shortages of energy, water and food — along with climate change — register as the country’s most important challenges, with 80-85 percent of respondents rating these issues as "big threats" to India’s security. Other issues rated as "big threats" by large majorities include possible war with Pakistan (77 percent), home-grown terrorism (74 percent), foreign jihadist attacks (74 percent), possible war with China (73 percent), and a continuing Maoist insurgency (71 percent).

The data also show how Indians feel about other countries — and the results are surprising. Indians are better disposed towards the United States than towards any other foreign country. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the U.S.-India partnership is stuck on a permanent plateau, this is good news for America.

Asked to rate their feelings toward 22 other countries, Indians rank the United States first, then Singapore, Japan, and Australia. Indians feel warmer towards these countries than toward the other members of the so-called BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa), with which India supposedly shares diplomatic and economic interests.

In fact, 78 percent of respondents think it would be better if India’s government and society  "worked more like" the United States — an intriguing result in this age of sequestration, policy deadlock, and bitter partisanship in Washington. Another 60 percent, give or take, think the same about Australia, Japan, and Singapore — well ahead of other countries.

But it goes beyond the desire to simply mimic American institutions: Eighty-three percent of Indians think relations with the United States are strong, and 75 percent want to see them grow stronger still — even though at the same time 31 percent say they think America poses a threat to the security of India over the next 10 years. (Only 9 percent, however, see America as a major threat.)

Indians also have strong opinions when it comes to the instruments of statecraft and power.  

In the nation of Gandhi and Nehru, 95 percent of respondents see the possession of a strong military as "very important to achieve foreign policy goals," while only 68 percent feel the same way about the country’s external affairs ministry, responsible for carrying out the country’s diplomacy. Other issues that Indians rate as "very important" include the country’s image in the world (78 percent), wise political leadership (78 percent), strong political leadership (75 percent), and nuclear weapons (79 percent). Abandon thoughts of India banning the bomb any time soon.

And think twice, too, about New Delhi’s tradition of non-alignment and strategic autonomy: Seventy-two percent of survey respondents attach great importance to India having strong countries as partners.

Still, some things don’t ever change: An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of respondents see Pakistan as a security threat over the next ten years, citing terrorism as a major reason. Other reasons identified include a belief that the Pakistani army sees India as its enemy, that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and that it claims sovereignty over Kashmir.

Even so, 89 percent of respondents agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace, 87 percent agree that a big improvement in India-Pakistan relations requires courageous leadership on both sides, and 76 percent think that India should take the initiative in repairing relations since it is the larger country. This result may send a timely signal to the Indian government about opportunities afforded by Pakistan’s recent civilian leadership transition.

But what of the relationship between India and China? The poll suggests that China faces a publicly diplomacy challenge of Himalayan proportions — no doubt worsened by recent tensions on the contested border between the two countries.

Most of the 83 percent of respondents who see China as a security threat over the next ten years indicate multiple reasons for this mistrust. The most significant include China’s possession of nuclear weapons, competition for resources in third countries, China’s efforts to strengthen relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean region (where 94 percent of respondents want India to have the strongest navy), and the border dispute between the two countries. Although China has become India’s largest trading partner, only 31 percent of respondents agree that China’s rise has been good for India.

In responding to China’s rise, however, most Indians are hedging t
heir bets: Sixty-five percent of respondents agree that India should join other countries to limit China’s influence, yet a similar number (64 percent) agree that India should cooperate with China to play a leading role in the world.

But don’t expect greater cooperation with Beijing to rub off on India’s domestic political system. For all its faults, 70 percent of respondents consider democracy preferable to any other kind of government, and at least 95 percent support the right to a fair trial, the right to free expression, and the right to vote, while 87 percent support the right to a media free from censorship.

Still, Indians do seem to agree with the Chinese about at least one thing: corruption. An overwhelming 96 percent of respondents think corruption is holding India back, while 94 percent think corruption has worsened in the past five years and that reducing it should be a government priority. Maybe Manmohan Singh and Li Keqiang have something to agree on after all.

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