It is a constant of Indian history since time immemorial. India never had a central empire which covered the entire subcontinent as China had through its history. In India there were occasionally large regional empires, mainly in the Doab region. But never the South or the Northeast. Most empires broke up into small principalities after lasting a century at most.
The kingdoms in South India were maritime, spreading to South East Asia, but seldom went North to win territory. The first person to rule over all India (excluding what became Pakistan) was Dr Rajendra Prasad. India had to become a sovereign democratic republic to achieve a single geographical shape.
Democracy is not native to India though there were republics in the old days. Yet India took to democracy and stayed democratic. It is too problematic to say whether it was British imperialism which bred democratic culture in the Indians. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar were also part of the same Empire but their democratic record is patchy. China could not face the breakdown of its empire and, within 40 years of becoming a republic, became communist but without democracy.
So what explains India’s fondness for democracy?
My answer is one which people may not like because it goes against much received wisdom. Indians have been searching for a single narrative as to what defines them. The Partition is both the cause and the result of the anxiety to find a single story which would fit all the people of the subcontinent. Hindu identity was sought by many great leaders, starting with Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekanand and of course, in his own way, Mahatma Gandhi. Yet again these ideas were mainly confined to the North. Even after a century and a half, the issue of Hindu nationalism has not been resolved.
This is partly because Hinduism/ Sanatan Dharma is not easy to encapsulate in a single simple message. There is no single book, no original founder, no single God. Hinduism is a multi-layered, multi-lingual, polytheistic religion. India is as large as Europe and has just as many languages. Christianity united Europe till it broke up into rival sects, Catholic and Protestants, which led to many wars. Religion split Europe till after two bloody world wars people came to their senses and created the European Union.
A country as large and as diverse as Europe, with as many religions as you can wish for, plus the multi-coloured rich Hinduism, has never been conquered by a single ruler. It was democracy which united the Doab and Punjab with Bengal and Assam plus the South. No region, no language can ride roughshod over others. Democracy allows disputes and complaints to be resolved peaceably. India has set up mechanisms for reconciliation, such as federalism with the statutory Finance Commission, Judiciary which is unitary, the Election Commission holding regular elections where millions express their voice.
Even over the last 72 years, there have been deep divisions between the North and South on the national language question. The Assamese felt their identity threatened by influx of ‘other’ people, and India is still sorting that issue. The Nagas in the Northeast and the people of the Kashmir Valley have yet to feel fully Indian. Democracy will provide the answer.