How Indian Democracy Is Sui Generis
The founders of India, against all odds, decided to build a democratic and secular society, despite having any experience of democracy, and at a time when people were sceptical about the success of it
Democracies everywhere present a complex scenario of tensions between constraints and liberty, unfreedom and freedom, the imperatives of the modern national security state and the aspirations of a free citizenry, but perhaps nowhere more so than in India. The very fact that India has repeatedly been able to mount general elections, and on a scale nowhere else witnessed in history, is adduced as evidence of the strength of Indian democracy — an accomplishment that seems all the more remarkable given the precarious state of democracy in most of the world. Not all institutions of civil society are equally robust, but it is an indisputable fact that there are strong people’s and grassroots movements. The same Supreme Court that sentenced Yakub Memon to death also acquitted other men for want of evidence. Similarly, if the press has often been a bulwark of support to élites, the vigilance of the English-language press during the riots in Gujarat in 2002 cannot be denied. There have been important legislative gains for ordinary people, including the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest People’s Land Rights Bill, the Right to Information Act, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, but it is also widely conceded that progressive legislation, for example on the practice of dowry, can coexist alongside a resolute determination to prevent its implementation. The law can obfuscate problems as much as it can help relieve them, an outcome all but assured when the state has no substantive commitment to the idea of an open society and distributive equality.
In thinking about Indian democracy and its future prospects, commentators have lavished far too much attention on “politics” in the narrowest conception of the term. There is much speculation, for example, on whether India might move towards a two-party system or some variation of it, with the Congress and the left parties constituting one bloc and the other bloc being constituted by BJP and its allies. But this kind of scenario has little room for parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which together dominate politics in Uttar Pradesh, where efforts by the Congress to reinvent itself do not hold much promise of success.
Consequently, in addressing the question of the future of Indian democracy, one is asked to think well beyond political parties, regionalism, the two party-system, and other like considerations. If there is still considerable hope for Indian democracy, it is because it still has several distinct sources of renewal. First, and foremost, there is the people’s wisdom. Time after time the illiterate electorates of India have shown better judgment than the educated. One should be reminded of a conversation that transpired in 1927 between Gandhi and a visiting clergyman, Reverend Mott. When Mott asked Gandhi what gave him the cause for the greatest hope, Gandhi unhesitatingly referred to the people’s capacity for non-violent resistance despite the gravest provocations. And when Mott queried Gandhi on what filled him with the greatest despair, Gandhi said: “The hard heatedness of the educated is a matter of constant concern and sorrow to me.”
The wisdom and resilience of ordinary people has been exemplified not only at the ballot box, but in grassroots movements and cultural practices of syncretism. Secondly, the Constitution of India remains, despite attempts to subvert its emancipatory provisions, a document and a vision that continues to hold out the promise of equality, justice, and opportunity. It has survived the wreckage of an authoritarian executive and will be guiding principle of the country in future also. Thirdly, the spectre of Gandhi remains to haunt, guide, and inspire Indians who are resistant to everything that passes for “normal politics” and have not entirely succumbed to the oppressions of modernity.
One should remember the Independence Day celebration of 1996, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Independence Day when H.D. Deve Gowda, the then Prime Minster, addressed the Indians from the Red Fort in Hindi, India’s national language. There was an unusual aspect about the Independence Day speech he delivered—H.D. Deve Gowda delivered his speech in a language he didn’t know, asserting that you can rule India without knowing its ‘national language’. And only in India is it possible to have a language as a national language that more than half of its people cannot speak and a good number of people cannot understand.
As India moves towards its sixty-ninth anniversary of its first stop—the end of the colonial rule on 15th August 1947—the centuries of backwardness that she inherited from British is yet to be overcome, the promises of the independence struggle are yet to be fulfilled. Also, the optimism that was prevalent in the early years of independence seems lost. And the disappearance of that optimism has made way for frustration and desperation.
The founders of India, against all odds, decided to build a democratic and secular society, despite having any experience of democracy, and at a time when people were sceptical about the success of it. Exceptional was the idea to have democracy from the first day of independence and bestow franchise to people irrespective of their religion, gender and caste. And by doing that they also took a stand against the then-popular rice-bowl theory. Democracy in India was a message to the world and the supporters of the rice-bowl theory. It falsified the claim that the poor cannot have democracy because of their interest in food. And undaunted by the partition, the unyielding intent to build a secular state is also worthy of applaud.
If there is one achievement India can boast about, it is the persistent sustenance of democratic political system in the face of failures. But the country has reached a stage where the fragility of governance and the political system seems enormous. There will not be a complete breakdown even in the near future but the crisis in governance is deepening. The divide is growing, based on different lines, including religion and caste. The alarming rate of increase in inequality and rampant corruption is also perplexing, including many other grave issues.
Perhaps, the last decade has been too problematic and has produced more negatives than positives. And at the centre of the problem was the dearth of quality and skilled leadership. The government seemed more apprehensive about passing new laws instead of the effective implementation of the old ones. The leaders seemed more interested in the game of politics, the game that has corrupted them and disabled them to perceive the realities. What India now has is the politics without principles, morale and ethics.
The decent and sophisticated ideas that were applied to build India have disappeared. In fact, the country has lost those ideas. The complete collapse of economy, governance, agricultural and industrial development and so on has deteriorated the mood of the common man. The feeling of exploitation and deprivation is visible, perpetuating immense despondent and disenchantment, everywhere. However, despite all the cynicism and the sense of despair prevalent in the country, India is a shining example for many in the world, and for a number of things, including democracy, secularism, diversity and so on.
And here it becomes mandatory to quote scholar and activist Verrier Elwin, a British who took up Indian citizenship. He wrote in 1963, in the last days of his life: “All the same, I am incurably optimistic about India. Her angry young men and disillusioned old men are full of criticism and resentment. It is true that there is some corruption and a good deal of inefficiency; there is hypocrisy, too much of it. But how much there is on the credit side! It is a thrilling experience to be a part of a nation that is trying, against enormous odds, to reshape itself.”
By Nilabh Krishna