In­dian democ­racy wins against odds

Home to the most sta­ble democ­racy in the re­gion, In­dia has had its fair share of prob­lems, es­pe­cially in the ini­tial years af­ter par­ti­tion. The coun­try has stood firm in face of all odds and moves for­ward with con­fi­dence.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Semu Bhatt

More than an eco­nomic suc­cess story, In­dia is a demo­cratic suc­cess story which many Asian and other na­tions with frag­ile democ­ra­cies or strict au­toc­ra­cies can take a les­son from. While many post-colo­nial democ­ra­cies crum­bled, In­dia, which was writ­ten off as a nation let alone a democ­racy, sur­prised the world by flour­ish­ing as a united Demo­cratic Repub­lic against im­mense odds. Called by many as lands within a land due to its mas­sive eth­nic-lin­guis­tic-cul­tur­al­re­li­gious di­ver­sity and home to onethird of the world’s poor, the suc­cess of In­dian democ­racy is a unique ex­cep­tion that de­fied all po­lit­i­cal science the­o­ries which state that poverty and di­ver­sity do not bring about democ­racy. In­dia’s suc­cess story is also more telling be­cause it thrived amidst a neigh­bor­hood that strug­gled with democ­racy.

In­dia’s found­ing fathers had shown tremen­dous vi­sion by fo­cus­ing on in­clu­sive­ness, rather than try­ing to find a sin­gle, ex­clu­sivist def­i­ni­tion of what makes an In­dian. In­dia car­ried it­self for­ward by cel­e­brat­ing its het­ero­gene­ity; thereby, cre­at­ing a com­fort­able co­ex­is­tence of the In­dian iden­tity along with a sep­a­rate cul­tural, re­li­gious, caste, class and lin­guis­tic iden­tity. As it turned out, cul­tural di­ver­sity acted as a bul­wark against ma­jor po­lit­i­cal or so­cial up­ris­ings as dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties rarely had sim­i­lar as­pi­ra­tions. Demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, a sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, a sec­u­lar Con­sti­tu­tion that guar­an­tees fun­da­men­tal rights of cit­i­zens, reg­u­lar fair elec­tions and the fed­eral sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that gave greater au­ton­omy to in­di­vid­ual states in most mat­ters of their in­ter­nal func­tion­ing – these fac­tors played a huge role in nur­tur­ing and strength­en­ing democ­racy in the coun­try. An in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary that al­lows for fil­ing cases against the gov­ern­ment and a free me­dia that fear­lessly points out the fail­ings of ad­min­is­tra­tion – both serve as out­lets for peo­ple’s griev­ances and ma­jor safe­guards against un­demo­cratic prac­tices.

The spread of In­dian democ­racy is not only ev­i­dent in the rea­son­ably free and fair na­tional or state elec­tions con­ducted reg­u­larly by the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, but also in the suc­cess­ful mu­nic­i­pal and vil-

lage Pan­chayat elec­tions. Termed as a “mi­cro­cosm of In­dian democ­racy,” the Pan­chay­ati elec­tions are the best re­flec­tion on how democ­racy is deeply en­trenched and val­ued in this coun­try. It is a com­mon sight to have ru­ral peo­ple queue up for vot­ing, all decked up in new clothes, as if for a fes­ti­val. The poor have not re­mained just in­ert vote banks, but have re­al­ized that au­thor­ity flows from the tips of their fin­gers and thus, they are en­ti­tled to de­mand for their wel­fare – with irate vot­ers hav­ing shown the door to the gov­ern­ments that try to op­press them or fail to meet their ex­pec­ta­tions; be it Indira Gandhi af­ter the Emer­gency or BJP in 2004. Trans­fers of power are peace­ful, with po­lit­i­cal par­ties humbly ac­cept­ing the ver­dict of the peo­ple. Al­though glob­ally con­sid­ered as po­lit­i­cally soft, In­di­ans have be­come in­creas­ingly vo­cal in mat­ters re­lat­ing to corruption and price rise – as was re­cently seen in the case of the Com­mon­wealth Games and onion prices. It is im­pos­si­ble to bring about ma­jor leg­is­la­tion against the pop­u­lar choice, as was wit­nessed in the case of the Indo-U. S. nu­clear deal, where the pub­lic de­bate al­most brought down the gov­ern­ment.

In­dian democ­racy works be­cause it wel­comes ev­ery­one to its fold. Not many West­ern democ­ra­cies can speak of hav­ing a Mus­lim pres­i­dent, a Sikh prime min­is­ter, a Catholic born in Italy as the leader of its rul­ing party, a Dalit woman as the chief min­is­ter of its largest state and a Parsi as the chief jus­tice of the nation. The fact that marginal­ized groups like Dal­its, trib­als, mi­nori­ties and women have all found their voice and space in democ­racy, re­duces the scope of re­sent­ment as the great In­dian ex­per­i­ment gives ev­ery­one an op­por­tu­nity to take a shot at power and po­si­tion.

In­dian democ­racy also works be­cause it has been in­di­g­e­nized so as to suit the en­vi­ron­ment of the coun­try. So, while on the flip side, iden­tity pol­i­tics is get­ting nar­rower by the day, the con­se­quent ad­vent of coali­tion pol­i­tics has fur­ther en­sured that smaller re­gional groups have a say in de­ci­sion-mak­ing at the cen­tre. This co-op­tion of peo­ple on the fringes has worked as a safety valve by giv­ing them hope and re­al­iza­tion that they too have a stake in the demo­cratic process. Peo­ple trust the power of the vote and their abil­ity to bring about a change with it. This is why the ma­jor­ity of In­di­ans have al­ways pre­ferred bal­lots over bul­lets – be it in Kashmir or in Nax­alite-af­fected ar­eas. Al­though coali­tion com­pul­sions in a multi-party democ­racy give rise to dis­hon­est prac­tices, it pre­vents ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity of a sin­gle party which could pos­si­bly bring in a re­pres­sive turn.

Yes, po­lit­i­cal corruption is mas­sive, but lead­ers get in­ves­ti­gated by au­ton­o­mous agen­cies if charged guilty. Yes, there are in­stances of po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated in­tol­er­ance, but that have stuck to their ar­chi­tects for­ever; Congress is un­able to wash its hands off the 1984 Sikh ri­ots and BJP off Babri de­mo­li­tion or Gu­jarat ri­ots. Yes, there has been a brief au­thor­i­tar­ian at­tempt in the past, but there are no at­tempts to re­move the same from the text­books. Yes, there are sep­a­ratist move­ments, but the at­tempts mostly are to as­sim­i­late by com­pro­mise within the bound­aries of the nation and Con­sti­tu­tion. Yes, one-third of the pop­u­la­tion is still poor, but by its mere pres­ence over 60 years, democ­racy has en­sured the po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment of those very poor who were con­sid­ered as a counter-force to its suc­cess. This irony is per­haps the most im­por­tant les­son to be drawn from the In­dian demo­cratic story.

Sixty-three years is a very short time in the his­tory of a nation, es­pe­cially the size and di­ver­sity of In­dia. Sixty-three years back, obit­u­ar­ies were al­ready writ­ten for In­dia, as a nation-state, as a democ­racy. In­dia has not only stayed united but has also taken ma­jor strides to­wards spread­ing democ­racy to the length and breadth of the nation, se­cur­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion and faith of all sec­tions of so­ci­ety in the sys­tem. The process has been slow, but it has been in­clu­sive and sus­tain­able. Now democ­racy is re­quired to spread its span to the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, in­sti­tu­tions and ad­min­is­tra­tion so as to achieve the so­cio-eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion of In­dia’s bil­lion-plus pop­u­la­tion. The chances are slim given the cur­rent sce­nario – but then, In­dia has a propen­sity to suc­ceed when the odds are im­pos­si­ble. The writer is a Mum­bai-based in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst spe­cial­iz­ing in se­cu­rity and gov­er­nance is­sues. She is co-au­thor of ‘Cost of Con­flict be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan’ and ‘Cost of Con­flict in Sri Lanka.’

In­dia shines in spite of hur­dles.

In­dia has a po­lit­i­cally-aware pub­lic.

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