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.
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.