Denying Nehru his due

Were ancient Indian polities democratic, democracy thus representing India’s enduring culture? And what was Jawahar Lal Nehru’s role in institutionalising democracy?

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: February 14, 2018 9:01 am
mahashivratri, pm modi, mahashivratri greetings, mahashivratri msgs, mahashivratri 2017, kejriwal, jaitley, rupani, congress, indian express If Modi is able to give the gift of a swachch Bharat (clean India) to Gandhi on his 150th birthday in 2019, as he promised from the Red Fort in 2014, he will be called the architect of swachch Bharat, though thousands of his colleagues have worked on the project. Leadership matters. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In his widely noted parliament speech on February 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the following claim about India’s democracy. “India did not get democracy due to Pandit Nehru, as Congress wants us to believe. Please look at our rich history. There are many examples of rich democratic traditions that date back centuries ago. Democracy is integral to this nation and is in our culture.” Modi called attention to the ancient Indian polities, especially those inspired by the Buddh paramapara (Buddhist tradition). He concluded that “loktantra hamaari ragon mein hai” (democracy is in our blood).

How valid are these claims? Two analytically distinguishable issues require discussion. Were ancient Indian polities democratic, democracy thus representing India’s enduring culture? And what was Nehru’s role in institutionalising democracy?

To answer these questions, we need to start with a conceptual question: What is democracy? For at least two and a half centuries scholars have debated democracy. Two conceptions of democracy have emerged: A narrower concept, and a broader one.

The narrower concept is purely electoral. It focuses on (a) contestation and (b) participation. The first means the capacity of political parties freely to contest the incumbent government in elections. The second points to adult universal franchise. The right to vote should not depend on caste, creed, race, ethnicity, income, gender or religion.

The broader notion of democracy goes beyond elections. It also speaks of politics between elections. Special note is taken of three freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religious practice, and freedom of association — without which everyday politics can become authoritarian, despite free elections.

In what sense were ancient Indian polities democratic? Did they satisfy the narrow conception, let alone the broader one? Did they have elected governments? How widespread was the franchise? One can indeed find polities in ancient India where kings bound themselves to assemblies and debates. But kings were unelected, and very few subjects had the privilege of participating in political debates.

That there was discussion and debate (charchaa and vichaar vimarsh, as Modi put it) in several ancient Indian polities is beyond doubt, but democracy goes beyond such constrained contestation. Some scholars have used terms like “oligarchies” for systems that encouraged limited assembly and debate, but didn’t have elected governments or broad citizen participation.

The “democracies” of the ancient city-states of Greece also had this problem. While going quite far towards popular constraints on governments, they excluded women and slaves from their assemblies.

Indeed, as late as the 19th century, the idea that everyone should have the right to political participation had few takers. Europe accorded the right to vote on the basis of property, education and gender, for it was believed that only the propertied and educated men had the rational capacities to vote. Women and the poor did not. Nineteenth century democracy satisfied only one half of the narrower concept of democracy: Contestation. Universal participation was an anathema.

Consider, also, the claims of John Stuart Mill, arguably the father of modern liberalism. In the 1860s, he wrote that (a) for their political enhancement, the Scots and Welsh in Britain required England’s tutelage, and the Basques and Bretons in France would benefit from Parisian cultural tuitions, and (b) while white British colonies deserved democratic government, non-white colonies did not. As Uday Singh Mehta argues in Liberalism and Empire, Mill viewed white colonies as “of similar civilisation to the ruling country, capable of representative government: Such as the British possessions in America and Australia”. And non-white colonies included “others, like India (that) are still at a great distance from that state”. The latter deserved colonial tutelage, not democracy.

Claims about differential worth of human beings were also present in India, especially taking the form of the caste system. To talk about India’s ancient democracies, as Modi did, and ignore the caste system, legitimated by the Manusmriti dating back to the 2nd century BC, a text that heaps indignities on the “lower” castes, can’t be called a plausible claim about democracy being “integral to Indian culture”. Caste inequalities were also in India’s blood. There is much to be proud of in ancient India, especially its scientific discoveries such as the decimal system and the heliocentric view of the planetary system, but democracy was not one of them.

Nehru departed from the old prejudices. He contended that universal franchise, including poor and rich, educated and uneducated, men and women, upper and lower castes, was based on the great 20th-century premise that “each person should be treated as having equal political and social value”. Nehru also endorsed the broader freedoms: “Civil liberty is not merely for us an airy doctrine or a pious wish, but something which we consider essential for the orderly development and progress of the nation”. This was the reason why, despite admiring the Soviet Union for its economic achievements in the 1930s and 1940s, he would claim that “Communism, for all its triumphs in many fields, crushes the free spirit of man”.

Modi is right to say that Nehru alone did not produce India’s democracy. In the Constituent Assembly, there was no great resistance to the idea of universal franchise. But Nehru and Ambedkar led the argument about citizen equality as a foundation for the new polity. Despite his differences with Ambedkar, Gandhi also believed in such equality, but his life’s energies were focused on securing India’s freedom, not on the post-Independence constitution or polity.

Consider an analogy. If Modi is able to give the gift of a swachch Bharat (clean India) to Gandhi on his 150th birthday in 2019, as he promised from the Red Fort in 2014, he will be called the architect of swachch Bharat, though thousands of his colleagues have worked on the project. Leadership matters.

Nehru has a similar relationship with democracy (as does Ambedkar with the Constitution). Without the first three universal-franchise elections — 1952, 1957, 1962 — under Nehru’s leadership, when democracies were collapsing in developing countries, it is hard to imagine the institutionalisation of democracy in India. Ancient polities did not create, or sustain, India’s post-1947 democracy.

The writer is director, Centre for Contemporary South Asia, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs,  Brown University

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  1. Harsh MK
    Mar 9, 2018 at 9:48 pm
    There Is no doubt in leadership of our former prime minister in setting up and strengthening the democracy in India. Inspite of low literacy, hunger,poverty and communal violence we got democracy.Its a achievement and praiseworthy!
    1. S
      Sumit Bose
      Feb 16, 2018 at 4:23 pm
      The tragedy of our wretched truncated nation is that we have been conditioned to prostrate to false "idols". This is a very huge topic one , if alive would have been sitting in the jail with Ram Rahim Baba and what more could be said about the other who succumbed to tertiary syphyllis. More importantly, both these totally failed barristers intensely disliked the brainy assets of the political party they ran as their own personal fiefdom namely Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (ICS , 4th rank holder) and Dr B R Ambedkar (double doctorate in Economics and Law), both,were left with no option but to resign from that boot-slurping party.
      1. K
        Feb 15, 2018 at 11:15 am
        A former Pakistan's minister had commented: We did not have the benefit of a family like that of Nehru's to guide us through and solidify democracy in the nascent stages of democracy. Look us where we are, and where you are! This comment is enough to answer critics of Nehru and his role in India's democratic traditions. Look at how Zimbabwe is struggling with bad leadership. It's near blasphemous to talk ill of Nehru and Gandhi.
        1. D
          Dushyant Pathak
          Feb 15, 2018 at 10:07 am
          'Holy 'Cow''!
          1. Sandeep Miglani
            Feb 15, 2018 at 8:45 am
            w.r.t. handling Pak issue, any Indian gov't needs to keep 3 things in mind i). Whenever and whatever offensive army launches (like surgical strike), it must keep on the tempo for 3-6 months. Don't let them breath. ii). During such an offensive, minimum public discourse no chest thumping or boasting iii). If gov't refrains from scoring political points, opposition will always be with gov't. Enemy should not feel Indian gov't has political pressure to do it not do something. INTENT of INDIAN gov't will be more intense and bring Pak to senses.
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