Last month India announced it was carving a new state, Telangana, out of an existing one, Andhra Pradesh. The decision seemed to come in response to black-mail by a local leader on a hunger strike and caught many observers, and even some members of the governing Congress party, off guard. As Telangana supporters rejoiced, opponents took to the streets. Suddenly it seemed as if India itself, which has been riven by separatist insurgencies since its creation, could be in danger. Experts began worrying that having given in to one such demand, New Delhi would be besieged by others, and that the center would not hold.
Chastened by the criticism, the Indian government has backtracked, announcing it will seek more opinions and follow constitutional procedures before moving forward. But the general fears are overblown: India is not about to break into pieces. John Kenneth Galbraith, President John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India, once called the country "a functional anarchy." The operative word, however, is "functional." It sometimes may seem like a vast nation divided by religion, language, caste, and class can't hold together. But it can and has, thanks to India's democratic structure. That structure allows regional aspirations to be peacefully recognized. And it suggests that the solution to separatist tensions is more local autonomy, not less.
There have to be limits, of course. At times, groups in the troubled northeast, as well as Sikhs in Punjab and militant Islamic groups in Jammu and Kashmir, have fought bloody struggles for independence. But these insurgencies no longer threaten the country's integrity; using talks and military force, India has managed to tame most of them. Even Kashmir is now relatively quiet.
Creating more states now won't threaten the union. Such fears might once have been well founded, but India today is a new country: strong, confident, and assertive. Indian officials now worry less about threats to unity and more about practicalities such as the expense of devolution and states's ability to be self-reliant.
Many of these concerns could be met by sharing more power. The U.S., with 308 million people, has 50 states; India, with 1.17 billion people, currently has only 28. Some of these are massive: the biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, has more than 175 million people, which would make it the world's sixth most populous country. These giant states find it difficult to respond quickly to the needs of their remote regions.
As a result, the political mood has been shifting toward subdivision for some time. The process got a boost in 2000, when Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh were carved out of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. Other culturally distinct regions within bigger states—such as Bodoland in Assam and Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Gorkhaland in West Bengal, and Saurashtra in Gujarat—have also sought greater autonomy.
The real issue, however, is not the size of the state, but the level of its independence. New states get some power and prestige but not enough economic freedom, which prevents them from offering investment incentives or making certain legislative changes. They also remain beholden to the center for financial support. Smaller states, in theory, should be able to create more responsive, accountable, and transparent governments that are closer to the people. That hasn't happened yet because too many local politicians have wasted resources on perks. But it could if the central government rewarded states that have well-run development programs with grants and punished chronic overspenders by refusing to bail them out. Profligate states should be allowed—and required—to fend for themselves.
The days when a single-party--controlled India are long gone; in the last seven national elections, all governments have had to form coalitions with smaller, regional parties. It is natural and inevitable that India's political structure should change to reflect this power shift. But that's a good thing: devolution will make the Indian government more functional and responsive, and the country less anarchic. Democracy has helped India negotiate its many differences peacefully until now. More democracy may make things messier, but it will also strengthen, not weaken, the country as a whole.