Indian democracy at 70 by Meghnand Desai
by Zaboor Ahmad April 5, 2018
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking on 7th February 2018 in Indian Parliament 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 Buddha paramapara (Buddhist tradition). He concluded that “loktantra hamaari ragon main hai” (democracy is in our blood). But this was a twist of history. There might have been republics in ancient India, but that doesn’t make India a democracy. Here is a book under review which has taken up this challenge to demonstrate why India is a democracy.
India has never been a single administrative entity. Empire based in Delhi seldom advanced to the southern parts of India while those in the south seldom went north. Partition of India left south India untouched. The leaders of independent India were predominantly from north Indian. It was north India which has witnessed repeated incursions from foreign empires since Alexander the Great. Thus the idea of perennial enslavement under Muslim rule and humiliation of the divided Hindus has been a potent elixir for the Hindus of the Hindi belt. All this engendered the fears of balkanization for the first generation of Indian leaders who came from Hindi belt. Since then India continues to move on without breaking apart unlike rest of the post-colonial states. But what has been the basis for the survival of India as a single entity when the other countries have broken up.
The Hindu fanatics would suggest sacred geography and network of Hindu Holy pilgrimage centers running across the length and breadth of the country. But this supine argument cannot be overstretched as they don’t extend to the northeast and even Punjab of India.
The Hindu society built on the overall framework of castes and jatis has also, in addition, a severe form of exclusion known as untouchability. Those living on the fringes of this system have been excluded from participating in the life of the community. So are the tribal. But this inequality has been functional. According to the author, it was the Hindu society with its iron frame of the caste with Brahmin domination which kept in India together in the absence of single political authority or a centralized system of social control. With the arrival of British colonial ‘power, India was forged in a single entity. Since independence, India has repeatedly been threatened with disintegration. It began with partition, then conflict in Kashmir. The Naga people never recognized that they were subjects of the British Empire and had resisted their inclusions into India for the last seventy years. There were predictions that the South might separate from the Indian Union. The essential question is what has glued India together? Why despite the differences and almost continuous trouble in one or the other part of India has the country remained as a single political entity? Well according to Lord Desai the answer is one word that is “democracy.”
India’s experiment with democracy has been unique not only due to the size of the electorate and the multiplicity of the political parties but because it has Indianised the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. A concise account of the development of Indian democracy began in the 19th century when Indian politicians tried to persuade a reluctant Raj to introduce Westminster style institutions in India. The seed of contemporary Indian democracy lies in the proliferation of Indian political associations on the British model and the dedication to the rule of law of Indian politicians educated in the Inns of Court in England. He argues that these legislatures played a very important role as a training ground for parliamentary practices. Desai agrees with others in recognizing Nehru’s contribution to keeping India a democracy. The role of liberal lawyers have been important in establishing democratic practice, but their influence inevitable became diluted once the power the backward and the untouchable were added to the electoral register. All these groups began to see democracy as a mean of their empowerment. India’s social divisions which the proliferation of such caste parties now more accurately reflects are themselves a guarantee against the domination of national politics by any particular religious ethnic, regional, caste group. The reforms to achieve social equality have taken place through the election process rather than through the unilateral executive actions. The most revolutionary and the profound egalitarian action of the constituent assembly of India were to grant a Universal adult franchise to everyone. The official participation of the different political leaders in legislatures during the British government was seed drilling mechanism. It added to the skills to hold the legislatures, the participants learned about procedures, how to frame laws, pass legislation, debate budgets and so on.
However most bizarre was the decision of the Communist Party of India to take the parliamentary road. When Planning committee was established by the Congress during the presidency of Subhash Chandra Bose with Nehru as an active secretary, it was clear to the Congress that economic growth is imperative if India was to remove the immense poverty. The principal opposition in the Parliament came from the left parties and Nehru’s achievement during his years as Prime Minister was that he sought and attempted to break the dominance of left parties and left ideology. At the end of the 1950 Rajagopalachari, the veteran congressman had been dissatisfied with centralized planning and the institution of controls on economic activity. He founded right wing but a non-religious party. It subscribed to market ideology, given the cold war atmosphere the party was branded as stooges of the Americans. Indian has succeeded to turn Westminster politics of two-party system into its idea of a single dominant party and many small parties with regional but not national presence this is what is called Snow White and seven dwarfs’ model (P18).
The creation of linguistic states and the emergence of the regional parties have enabled local politicians to speak and conducted politics in native language engendering the robustness of the Indian democracy.
The Janata coalition did two things which were to change the shape of Indian democracy radically. The first was to facilitate the creation of the new political party. The other far-reaching change it triggered was to commission report on social deprivation. Instead of looking at economic categories of class, poverty level, and income variables to understand deprivation, it looked at social characteristics especially the Hindu social system. The parties which had national reach, as well as upper caste Hindu leadership, were opposed to these reservations. Ritually to untouchable, the social distance made no sense any longer in a democracy where an adult had a vote regardless of the ritual status within the Hindu society. Mandal empowered the majority of the society OBCs. The lower caste people felt that to succeed it was necessary to break the monopoly of the Congress; they would have to use the ballot box to pursue that goal. Mandalisation was to change the face of political India. In place of the smooth British parliamentary practices came the rough and tumble of the Indian streets and pavements. The Demons has finally arrived.
The treatment of the Dalits by the upper caste has not changed over the first thirty years of independence. The situation was even worse among the scheduled tribes. Political thinkers like Kanshi Ram and Ram Manohar Lohia where the first to visualize that political stability regarding single-party majority rule was not desirable for every group in India as far as the socially deprived classes are concerned as such stability reinforced the elite role. Despite much social drama today it is mostly the educated upper caste that has benefited from the public investment in higher education and public sector Industries. The balance had remained at the bottom of the social order. It was a fragmented party structure with no single dominant party which gave the best chance of empowering the week minority groups.
The two main weaknesses of the Indian Communist thought were that it lacked any original thinkers of the quality of Mao Zedong. Second, it put too much emphasis on class rather than on the caste. By the time the opportunity to exploit the gap left between the decay of the Congress.
Mandal deepened the process of democracy as agenda for the parliamentary politics changed it after 1989. Issues of welfare, entitlements, reservation in government jobs, higher education Institutions became dominant. These issues were high up on the agenda. This deepened into the consciousness of the democratic political process among the socially deprived groups voting came to be seen not just as a duty but also as a right. A tool for the empowerment of the lower castes, the economically less well-off soon voted proportionately more than the better off, a phenomenon contrary to what is usual in other democracies.
The Congress at the outset was a party with career and systematic elections across its various levels, but very soon the family structure became the key to political recruitment and succession. The transformation of an old party into a family firm was one of the most significant factors in the ultimate decline of the Congress. Once the Congress got recast as a family party, the fashion was adopted by other smaller mainly regional parties this was another way in which politics became more Indian.
BJP in all likelihood wanted to use the idea of a United Hindu Nation as a rival hegemonic strategy to the secular liberal Gandhian mix that the Congress has been so successful in the offering. If the OBC is good to mobilize around Mandal why could the BJP not build a national platform around the Masjid Mandir? The problem with this program is that it is entirely and north Indian project. It’s a confined to the Hindi belt of states at most entails Gujarat and Maharashtra. The destruction of the Mosque was swift, but its principal consequence was to destroy the standing of the Congress in UP and Bihar. The Muslims in these two states realized that Congress Prime Minister stood passively when bakhts decisively attacked an old disused Mosque. The perception was that the Congress could not be trusted henceforth to defend Muslims. It never came to power again in these two states after 1992. With it began the process of the long-run decline of the Congress. India had succeeded in transforming the Westminster model into something much more suitable to its own culture and practice.
The author focuses on the institutional trapping and structural features of the democracy. It has not demonstrated the nature of Indian democracy. It is easy, and absorbing account of democracy and a must read for those concerned with Indian democracy.