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Against All Odds

Despite its many problems,the robustness of India’s democracy comes from its political system.

November 30, 2013 5:10:08 am

Book: Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy

Author: Ashutosh Varshney

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 432

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ashutosh varshney

Independent India was born with multiple projects. Three were especially important: securing national unity; bringing dignity and justice to those at the bottom of the social order; and eliminating mass poverty. These were by no means the only projects of the founding fathers,but they were viewed as critical. Freedom was not simply to be intrinsically valued,but free India would also allow its citizens to achieve cherished and worthy goals.

These three missions were not unusual. They were familiar themes on the political agenda of many other countries that became independent after the Second World War. The uniqueness of the Indian experiment lay in the political framework within which these projects were pursued. India’s founding fathers committed themselves to a universal-franchise democracy. Universal franchise came to the West after the Industrial Revolution — that is,after incomes had reached a substantially high level. India was to practise it at a very low level of income,long before the economic revolution.

In other newly decolonised nations,democracy was not a primary,or an unwavering,commitment. If the élite thought that democracy was coming in the way of achieving national unity,social justice or prosperity,in many places it was tossed aside in favour of an authoritarian embrace. By the 1960s,country after country had abandoned its democratic pledge. In contrast,with the solitary exception of 19 months during 1975–77,India’s democracy survived. Democracy has become the institutionalised common sense of Indian politics: no one thinks any longer that there is any other way of coming to power. For the first time in human history,a poor nation has practised universal franchise for so long — already for over six decades.

Has India’s democracy aided,or impeded,the pursuit of national unity,dignity and justice,and elimination of poverty? The battles are half won. Keeping the nation together is perhaps the greatest achievement of Indian democracy,though a combination of force and persuasion has been used. Democracy has seriously attacked caste inequalities in the South,but in the North the process has only recently acquired force. Mass poverty remains the greatest failure of Indian democracy. Since 1991,the rate of decline in poverty has accelerated,and a real measure of prosperity has reached the middle classes. But,between one-fourth and one-third of India remains trapped in poverty. Begging bowls,hungry faces,emaciated bodies continue to greet the rising curve of prosperity…

The quality of Indian democracy generates a great deal of concern,and rightly so. ‘Argumentative Indians’ have often debated and critiqued existing democratic practices. But a prior question needs to be posed and explored. Comparative experience suggests that India’s democracy was unlikely to be stable. A Pakistani- or-Indonesian-style political history was more likely. These nations were,like India,desperately poor at the time of independence,and were unable to stabilise democracy in the first half-century of their post-independence history. We need to ask why Indian democracy has lasted so long,as much as what is wrong with it.

The statistical evidence provided by Adam Przeworski of New York University shows India’s democratic exceptionalism in a fresh light. The biggest surprise about Indian democracy is income-based. The claims of Przeworski et al are based on the most comprehensive dataset ever constructed on democracies and dictatorships. Of all the patterns identified,the following have special relevance for India:


n Income is the best predictor of democracy. It correctly predicted the type of regime in 77.5 per cent of cases. No other predictor — religion,colonial legacy,ethnic diversity,international political environment — is as good.

n India is in the latter 22.5 per cent set. Indeed,if we consider only decolonised countries,the claim for India can be made even more specific. Democracies that emerged from decolonisation survived only in India,Mauritius,Belize,Jamaica,Papua New Guinea,Solomon Islands,and Vanuatu. The most surprising case is India,which ‘was predicted as a dictatorship during the entire period’ 1950–90. All other poorer exceptions had higher income than India.

n Some other countries have defied the pattern on the obverse side. They were rich enough to be democratic earlier. If India is the biggest exception at the low-income end,Singapore is the biggest surprise on the high-income side.


Comparative analysis makes clear that India’s democratic longevity is less a consequence of objective characteristics of Indian society,culture or economy — the factors normally invoked. Rather,it is primarily a consequence of politics. Leaders and political organisations have played a salutary role. Without centrally bringing their role into our analysis — especially those from the pre-independence and early post-independence period — India’s democratic longevity cannot be understood. The leaders and their organisations did not carry larger impersonal forces of history. They made democracy…

Right since John Stuart Mill,we have known that nationhood is a prerequisite of democracy. Could India develop a national feeling,or was it simply an assemblage of inveterate localities,each locality speaking a different language? This was a most critical question for the freedom movement.

Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues began to see that European-style nationhood was not conceivable in India. If they sought linguistic uniformity,it would lead to destruction and violence. In India,diversities were far too rooted,historically. Not only linguistic,but other forms of diversities would also have to be accepted as natural. Instead,a second layer of all-India identity would be created,what we call hyphenated identities today. Indians would be Gujarati Indians,Bengali Indians,Muslim Indians,Hindu Indians,not undifferentiated Indians. It is entirely conceivable that if the leaders of India’s freedom movement had insisted on a ‘one language,one nation’ formula,there would have been as many nations in India,at the time of British departure,as there are in Europe today. Gandhi himself was not very fond of representative government. His ideal polity had local,village republics,more in line with direct — not representative — democracy. But the freedom movement he led built a nation that established the foundations of post-independence democracy.

In the consolidation of democracy,the role of political leadership,especially Nehru’s,is critical. It is not clear how many early post-independence leaders were intensely committed to the democratic project. Perhaps many were but,because Nehru is well researched,we understand him better. If Gandhi is the father of Indian nationhood,Nehru is the father of Indian democracy. Their colleagues and the organisations they built were indeed most valuable,but someone had to lead.

In India’s contemporary public discourse,there are passionate arguments about Nehru’s role. The debate is influenced by the way the Nehru dynasty came to occupy the highest rungs of the Indian polity after his death. In modern times,family domination of political parties is never viewed with unalloyed joy. However relevant dynasties might be to shoring up political organisations in the short-to-medium run,they are inherently anti-modern. They generate strong reactions.


But,whatever the view of practitioners and activists,scholars clearly need to separate Nehru’s role from that of his family since his death. In retrospect,it is clear that there were four keys to India’s democratic consolidation in the 1950s and 1960s,a critical period: the unique position of the Congress party,elections,the primacy of the Constitution,and minority rights. Nehru played a vital role in each,leading Indian democracy through its troubled childhood and against all odds…

Reflecting on the gap between the ideals of democracy and actual political practices in the US,Samuel Huntington wrote: ‘Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its realities. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.’ With the exception of ‘disappointment’,the same lines can be written about India’s democracy. Surveying a history of two centuries,Huntington was disappointed,though he remained rooted in the hope of further reform. India is in its seventh decade under democracy. A deeply hierarchical and poor society has come quite far. But it needs to go much further. A battle for deeper democracy is under way.

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First published on: 30-11-2013 at 05:10:08 am

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