We define here multiculturalism in a narrow sense to include only major differences based on ethnicity or religion, leaving aside other rivalries created by geography or ideology.
Theoretically, one may expect multiculturalism and democracy to conflict or even to be irreconcilable, because people tend to rally around single issue parties along ethnic or religious lines.
In reality we find democracy in large multicultural countries like India, a country where 20% of the population follows a religion different from Hinduism, where cohabit more than 700 tribes, with 18 official languages and 450 linguistic groups.
In contrast we currently have many smaller multicultural countries like Syria and Iraq being ravaged by civil war. At the same time we have totalitarian multicultural countries like China, also a big country, where less than 50% of the population follow Shenism-Taoism and Buddhism among the Han Chinese and the other 55 official ethnic groups speaking 292 languages. Despite Mandarin being the only national official language in China, other languages like the Cantonese are also official languages at the regional level.
The question then is: why is multiculturalism consistent with democracy, tolerance and diversity in some places but not elsewhere?
One explanation is that democracy was possible where there was an over-riding cultural inheritance; often originating from the leadership of independence movements. India, where Gandhi’s party – the National Congress Party – dominated the political life in the first 25 years of independence, is such an example.
What makes the Indian experience interesting is how such party dominance could be ended in a peaceful way. Indeed, democracy survived despite the emergence of a plethora of small regional and ethnic parties and, at times, being governed by a 14-party coalition.
Many factors might have contributed for such outcome, but among the most important we must certainly include the choice of a federal system of government, the adoption of a unified and independent judicial system and the acceptance of coalition governments instead of a more traditional two-party rotation system.
All those currently pushing to jump towards political union in the European Union must think about these factors.