After reading this article you will learn about the nature of Indian democracy.
The Problem of Indian Democracy:
It is often assumed, without enough clarification, that the continued success of democracy in India is in some senses a surprise, that the continuance of democracy itself is some kind of a problem to be explained. There are several possible grounds for such scepticism.
The most common view sees the obstacle to democracy as economic. Without some economic development, it is argued, political democracy is not possible. The reason for this is that sharing in a general atmosphere of economic prosperity reduces the desperation and sharpness of social conflicts.
The second argument is based on social structure or, alternatively, culture. The most familiar form that this argument takes is as follows. Indian society has traditionally been based on caste and other strong community identities.
Caste is explicitly based on principles of hierarchy, and goes against political equality. Attachment to traditional communities or sects is resistant to the principles of abstract equal citizenship under a common state.
The successful operation of democracy requires that individual electors should vote on the basis of their considered individual judgement, and on the basis of their perception o their self- interest. Caste and community attachments, it is argued, would defeat a successful operation of democracy.
The historical record of Indian democracy, however, shows that such objections are indecisive. Despite continued poverty, and the undeniable influence of caste and communities on political choice, the democratic system in India has functioned with vitality.
However, the social and cultural conditions in which democratic institutions have functioned have made Indian democracy operate in ways which are quite locally specific.
The Nature of Indian Democracy:
John Stuart Mill began his treatise on representative government by noting two different ways of thinking about governments. The first theory treated governmental institutions like machinery that is deliberately conceived and constructed by human contrivance, without much regard for the form or kind of society in which this machinery is supposed to work.
The second, Mil thought regarded governmental forms as institutions which grow out of the fundamental tendencies of the social structure.
Interestingly, in the literature on Indian democracy we can find traces of these two unreconstructed views of either extreme constructivism or sociological determinism. Broadly, the early academic works on Indian democracy accepted an uncritical legal constructivism, and spent its intellectual resources in perfecting legal institutions when faced with political challenges.
Since the 1970s, the academic study of Indian democracy has tended to move away from institutional formalism towards political sociology. Now the central questions about the ‘nature’ of Indian democracy involve an analysis of what has happened to the recognizable forms of institutional democracy adopted by the Indian state after Independence, what the structure of society has done to these state forms, and what the state form, in its turn, has done to the structures of social life. Democracy can be viewed in two rather different ways and is said to contain two contradictory types of possibilities.
The idea of democratic government was evidently regarded as historically transformative by the political elite which established the state after Independence. It believed that operating under the principles of democratic government ordinary people would learn new rules of political and social equality.
But historical comparisons of democratic experience show that democratic government also has a tendency to bring social cleavages into overt, public expression through the openness of its political process. And evidently, in certain circumstances there can be a tension between these two sides of the historical consequences of democratic government.
The Origins of Indian Democracy:
Although the political elite after Independence behaved as if the choice of democracy as a form of government was a foregone conclusion, that belief itself is an interesting fact to explain. Neither traditional Indian social rules, nor the rules according to which British authorities governed India for about two hundred years, could be called democratic- that is based on a recognition of political or social equality.
Why did the successful national movement think of democracy as the only appropriate form of government.’ The historical sources of Indian democratic thought were several, and it was also a history of considerable complexity.
First, the intellectual following of democratic ideas was historically uneven. Indian writers and political groups were quick to discern the internal differentiations and complexities of the democratic idea in the West.
They noticed the difference particularly between a liberal, individualist, legalistic strand which embraced both individualism and emphasis on legal procedures and a radical, populist strand intolerant of procedural obstacles to social justice.
Internal discussions on democracy would usually form a conversation between three different positions, to simplify the considerable variations of emphasis and inflexion. Some writers opposed the idea of any implantation of institutions from the West on the grounds that these were inappropriate for Indian culture.
But, increasingly, two other strands were to emerge to make powerful arguments for adoption of western practices.
One was a strand of liberal, individualistic thought which used rationalistic arguments to undermine justifications of the caste system and reject religious superstitions. And a second, community-oriented, political strand interpreted democracy in a more radical, and at the same time less individualistic, fashion.
The weight of political opinion and actual political support fluctuated between these three types of thinking. After the early influence of liberal and individualistic ideas, in the second half of the nineteenth century in Bengal one sees a clear emergence of a critique of western forms of ideology and a distinct preference for what was regarded, sometime quite erroneously, as more indigenes social forms and principles.
However, there was a second kind of complexity always accompanying this explicit debate. Even the strands which supported western ideological trends had to introduce startling translations and improvisations, especially when [or, ‘mainly because’] they wrote in the vernacular—translations which would be difficult to characterize in terms of standard western categories.
Administrative and cultural practices of colonialism contributed to the growth of democratic ideas in some ways. Colonial rule had immense impact on the systems of property holding in Indian society; much of colonial law insisted on private property.
The meticulous institutionalization of private property in various spheres, like landholdings, introduced crucial ideas about individual ownership and assisted individuation with regard to economic practices in elite Indian culture. Perhaps more significantly, the colonial government in the nineteenth century introduced ideas of procedural as opposed to arbitrary government.
Conceptions of fair procedure and just government existed in traditional society, but these were different from the modern ideas about impersonality of power and associated notions of legal impartiality This familiarized Indians with ideas of a rule of law, though it was common practice to suspend it in case of European offenders.
But the fact that some of the most powerful individuals associated with early colonialism, individuals who often acted like medieval despots, when away from the restrictions of the British Parliament, were formally tried and indicted, reinforced the idea that modern governance was a rule of law.
Under the new dispensation, political activity did not consist in turning the arbitrary will of the rulers in one’s favour, but to act in a public sphere to pressurize them into enacting more equitable laws.
The introduction o western education was driven by a complex combination of motivations on the part of colonial rulers and showed the extreme diversity of opinion among them. In part, it was driven by the condescending altruism of giving to Indians the knowledge on which modern civilization was based; in part, it was meant to produce a class of reliable bureaucratic under-labourers.
But the most strikingly paradoxical effects of modern education were political.
The more British education sought to convince Indians about the wonderful narrative of western enlightenment and freedom, the more it undermined the ideological grounds of colonial rule. Familiarity with the history and the institutions of the West enabled Indians to desire more perfect forms of such institutions and helped them criticize British authority on the basis of principles which the British could not morally reject.
But, obviously, the processes by which Indians could acquire a strong preference for democratic government in the strict sense were severely restricted in colonial India.
Such preferences were found mainly in elite groups which have access to English education or among those who have serious contacts with the institutions of colonial legality; it was only in those groups that could either understand, value, feel attracted towards, or reflect critically on the western democratic ideals.
Democratic ideas emerged more powerfully and circulated more widely after the rise of the nationalist movement, particularly after it assumed mass character with the coming of Gandhi in the 1920s. Gandhi’s tactics bridged the crucial gap between two broad strands of anti-colonial politics that had existed before him but never managed to converge.
Middle class dissatisfaction with British rule assumed the form of constitutionalist-liberal agitation against the colonial government, which constantly emphasized the procedural and legalistic elements of modern politics and tried to embarrass the British authorities by quoting their own principles, thereby proving the ‘un-British’ character of governance in India.
The colonial administrative discourse operated inside the British political ideology of the times, which generally advocated democracy as the best form of government, but argued that Indians were unprepared for self-government on cultural grounds.
Liberal-constitutional agitation, however, sought to prove the Indian middle class was capable of governing. But since this agitation was confined primarily to the new colonial middle classes, it had little support outside the colonial cities.
By contrast, peasant uprisings represented the most radical form of protest against colonial rule, but these were usually restricted to particular regions, and often showed utter incomprehension of the system of legal rules that the colonial administration had put in place.
Understandably, peasant militants showed less regard for the intricacies of colonial legality as compared to the lawyers who mostly formed the leadership of the Indian National Congress in its early stages. As long as the two strands of opposition to colonialism remained separate, British authorities in India could retain their power without much difficulty.
The constitutionalist agitation of the middle classes rarely broke out of the strict limits of political mendicancy, and the anger of the peasantry, though much more troublesome and destructive, could always be surrounded and eventually crushed by the use of military power.
Gandhi’s emergence as the prime leader of Indian nationalism brought these two social forces into a powerful combination for the first time, immediately posing far more difficult problems for British colonial power.
The legacy of the Congress for Indian constitutional democracy was far more direct and positive, although not entirely free of paradoxes. Nehru claimed in the Discovery of India that Congress was the most democratic organization he knew, defending it against the British colonial charge that it was an organization dominated by a small elite and manipulated by its major leaders.
But the practice of political procedure inside the Congress is interesting because it shows some trends which would persist in post-Independence Indian politics.
The formal organizational structure of the Congress was certainly democratic, with members choosing Pradesh Congress Committees which sent their delegates through a democratic representative process to the annual sessions of the AICC, the major forum for the declaration of policies, if not their actual formulation. The Congress maintained an astonishing adherence to formal rules of procedure.
Even large-scale agitations, which were to convulse India for long periods, were ceremonially launched at Congress sessions by the procedurally fastidious passing of resolutions, like the famous Quit India resolution of August 1942.
Political practice in the Congress thus showed a shrewd awareness that democracy required a balance between the participatory and procedural sides of die democratic idea: unlike many other popular movements, the Congress never claimed that large mobilizations of people were their own justifications.
Under the conditions of stress and enthusiasm in which successful national movements function, this was an amazing characteristic and not a mean achievement.
However, Gandhi was always particular about his rather idiosyncratic notion of discipline, which he contrasted with the anarchy and disorder associated in his mind with violence. His construal of what discipline meant in particular circumstances could be extremely odd.
But his ability to impose a certain kind of political discipline and orderliness on the potentially anarchic forces of Indian nationalism was quite evident from the success with which he could bring to instant suspension huge mass movements in the middle of their disorderly career.
The manner in which the civil disobedience movements of the 1920s and 1930s were brought to a sudden but orderly end were miracles of control, though it is quite natural that his critics interpreted these acts very differently
Communists and socialists like Nehru evidently associated more value with the participatory, mobilizational, activist side of the idea of democratic movements, and deplored Gandhi’s sudden withdrawals as arbitrary and authoritarian, in the sense that what appeared the right course of action to Gandhi was allowed to trump what the thousands of activists in the movement actually thought.
So while these were enormous acts of will, for Gandhi mythicized his political role, it implied a totally illegitimate assumption of their capacity of decision by him, and evidently had a strongly negative impact on democratic politics. They correctly detected the small seed of authoritarianism at the heart of even the most benign form of charismatic politics.
At other times, when the Congress was not engaged in leading mass movements but occupied in more mundane politics of the everyday, Gandhi’s attitude towards procedural forms could be deeply puzzling. When Subhas Chandra Bose defeated Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the candidate he had favoured, Gandhi declared this as his own defeat, forcing a reluctant Bose to step down, eventually splitting the Congress.
From another angle, however, Gandhi was usually willing to compromise with political opponents—his critics inside the Congress Jinnah and the Muslim League, and, most significantly, the British. His actions, however, often had an air of moral generosity which was suited to his ethical style but they were really somewhat removed from the rejection of extremism required by political liberalism.
Despite these complexities, the Congress legacy was mainly positive in its contribution to a democratic form of government in independent India in two ways: first, its internal functioning was often startlingly attentive to procedures and legal niceties; and second, from the early part of the century, and especially after 1937, it took part in representative government at the provincial level.
Until the very end, the institutions were based on only limited representation, never involving more than about 16 per cent of the entire population.
The eve of constitution making was marked by several interesting contradictions. The Congress, which had campaigned for the introduction of adult suffrage which it considered essential for a possible Constituent Assembly, eventually accepted the unrepresentative assembly that the departing British administration offered.
At the same time, it is remarkable that most sections of political opinion about the form of government to be adopted after Independence chose some form of parliamentary democracy. The constitution, which introduced universal suffrage, was adopted by an Assembly which was not, to crown the irony, itself based on adult franchise.
But this shows several peculiar features of the institutional form of Indian democracy. It was not a form of government that emerged out of irresistible popular demand, but rather a paternalistic elite construction driven by two rather different impulses.
The educational and political culture of the Indian elite made it likely that they would regard parliamentary democratic government as the most appropriate to India after Independence. But it was also somewhat tragic luck which gave it its actual form.
The historical circumstances of Partition fatally weakened those forces which might have been less than enthusiastic about liberal democratic procedural forms-both the Muslim League with Its fear of Hindu majoritarian rule and the assorted opposition to liberal-democratic ideas found from Hindu chauvinists to communists.
There was a window of opportunity for the more democratic section of the Indian elite to construct the constitution relatively unhindered. The property restrictions in voting which chose members of the Constituent Assembly also appear to have favored this institutional construction. Communists, for instance had only one member in the Assembly, while in the first general elections, they formed the largest opposition group.
The moment of constitution making therefore marked a strange and tragic elite consensus. The politics of colonial India, despite the largely democratic ideals of the Congress, failed to produce any consensual or even compromise result, and failed to tackle the most serious conflict about religious nationalism. But after that serious opposition hived off from India, the business of finding relatively consensual settlements among the Indian elite became much easier.
The Constitutional Structure of Democracy:
The preamble to the constitution declared with suitable solemnity that the people of India had resolved ‘to give to themselves’ the classical principles of freedom, equality, fraternity, and justice.
A minor irony of this gesture was that it was made in English, a language understood by a small segment of the population, and some of its more indigenist members regretted weakly at the end of its deliberations that it would have been more appropriate if these principles had been given to the people in a language of their own.
Yet, given the complexity of the situation, even that was not an uncontested or simple issue. In the Constituent Assembly, there was little contestation about the adoption of democratic government. Because of the elite consensus in India’s politics at that moment, no one doubted that parliamentary democracy was the most appropriate form of government for India.
Most of the discussions in the Assembly concerned more detailed matters of institutional architecture: of combining elements from the American with the basic structure of the Westminster model. The eventual constitutional arrangement adopted a Westminster-style parliamentary government with a cabinet and the principle of collective responsibility to the central legislature.
It adopted a constitutional president as head of state, but sought to demarcate the difference in executive authority by making his election indirect. However, a troublesome flaw in the constitution was leaving the jurisdiction of the President, in times of confusion or absence of a clear-cut majority in parliament, strangely, to be governed by the conventions of British parliament.
This assumed that future generations of legislators would be as conversant with the technicalities of British law and Erskine May as the one who wrote the constitution. It is hardly surprising that as legal training of legislators has declined in later years, such matters, in the absence of clear constitutional directives, have become increasingly contentious.
Independent India also slowly developed a very different culture of legality, with much less emphasis on legal technicality and the pertinacious accumulation of precedents. Consequently, after the decline of the comfortable majorities of the Congress in the 1980s, governmental’ changes have become increasingly uneasy; they are heavily dependent on the judicious use of discretionary powers by the President.
If his decisions are politically awkward, morally questionable, and contested by major parties, this could become a source of serious problems for the smooth procedural functioning of Indian democratic institutions. In ordinary times, however, there has been little controversy about the powers of the cabinet and the President.
The major institutional innovations of Indian democracy lay in the manner in which its draftsmen combined elements of more consensual forms with the majority rule of the Westminster model.
The second chamber, the Rajya Sabha, was based on democratic but not numerically equal representation of the states, and several important types of legislation were made dependent on special majorities. The Constitution accepted the principle of representation of constiuent states along with that of popular representation, which was expressed in a federal structure.
In accordance with federal principles, the constitution distributed powers between the central and state governments, but the experience of the Partition changed legal thinking on federalism fundamentally.
Before Partition became a certainty, it was generally acknowledged that after Independence India would have a very loose federal structure; after Partition, the understandable anxiety about territorial integrity favoured a far more centralized federalism. The central government not merely received a much larger number of subjects, but also the most insignificant ones, including the undefined residual powers.
Besides, the Constitution gave the central government power to dislodge state administrations in circumstances in which the former thought constitutional government had become impossible. In the aftermath of Partition, this highly centralized federal design drew little protest from regionally based political groups.
But after 1967, in situations where the centre and the states were controlled by different parties, this emergency power has been used with alarming frequency and often with questionable justification. Political evolution after the 1960s saw increasingly strident demands for greater regional autonomy from parties which recognized that their influence was unlikely to expand beyond specific regions.
However, in several areas the constitutional structure improvised to produce legal rules to suit Indian conditions, and came out with remarkably interesting features.
Because of the specific historical conjuncture, and the unrestricted influence of reformist leaders in the Constituent Assembly, the institutional structure paid serious attention to the eradication of caste discrimination, which it expected, along with affiliation to religious communities, to be the primary obstacle to the working of formal democracy.
The first innovation was in the definition of the underlying form of nationalism which supported the institutions of the constitution. Historically, Indian nationalism had been an internally variegated ideology, with often strongly contradictory trends coexisting within its capacious spread.
Apart from the question of how to deal with the two-nation theory which asserted that the two main religious communities constituted natural nations, there was the further problem of how the two levels of nationalist-patriotic sentiments could be reconciled.
Historically, nationalism, rode on the back of intense cultural self-assertions of regional language cultures and the rise of modern vernacular literatures. The constitutional system had to find a way in which the nationalism of the linguistic regions and of the entire country could properly be reconciled.
The institutional solution to the problem of regional and administrative diversity was of course federalism. But underlying the entire idea of Indian federalism was the question of how far the ideal of the cultural unity of the new nation should be taken, and what its form should be.
In the Constituent Assembly, there was an opinion which followed the precedent of western nation-states and demanded a single indigenous language to form the basis of a single national culture.
In the aftermath of the Partition, it was particularly plausible to argue that without the unifying structure of a single culture based on a single language the new state would fall apart, or simply lack cultural substance as a nation. It was also likely that this line of argument would increasingly slide towards a Hindu self-definition of the Indian nation.
Despite strong representations of this strand within the Constituent Assembly, the drafting committee defended its idea of a pluralistic, two-tier nationalism.
It recognized the legitimate demands of linguistic cultures and did not consider them hindrances to a feeling of an all-India nationalism. Federalism therefore was not just an administrative- territorial arrangement, it reflected the pluralistic and layered form of the nationalism that was officially accepted by the state.
Adoption of this idea was necessarily incomplete in the first stage of institution making. The Constitution initially established a Byzantine and complicated system of different types of states, but the reorganization of the states in linguistic terms after 1956 brought legal structures in line with this pluralistic conception of Indian nationalism.
The Nehruvian state remained concerned about the long-term effects of this concession to linguistic nationalism of the regions.
In its early stage, Nehru’s government energetically, pursued a policy of propagation of Hindi which brought hostile reaction and political discontent in south India and West Bengal, leading to Nehru’s retreat in the face of dissatisfaction. This, however, had rather contradictory consequences over the longer term.
The imposition of Hindi on reluctant regions immediately after Independence, may have created difficult political problems similar to ones that the neighbouring state of Pakistan faced because of an unwisely homogenizing linguistic policy.
But leaving things without reform meant unrestrained continuance of the cultural and professional privilege of English and the classes who controlled it—a policy unlikely to ever contribute to a democratic eradication of cultural access to social privilege. Fortunately, however, the Indian state has not faced direct trouble over the question of language and its distribution of life chances.
Another important innovation of the constitutional structure of democracy was the set of provisions for reverse discrimination in favour of groups which were considered historically backward. The Constitution not only formally abolished untouchability, but enacted provisions against discrimination on the basis of caste, the most common principle of conventional Hindu social life.
The adoption of measures directed against caste practices was not a direct inheritance of a nationalist consensus. At least two strands of Indian nationalism were seriously opposed to the abolition of caste-based conduct.
Hindu nationalists were, for obvious reasons, opposed to the abolition of castes, so central to the practice of common Hinduism, though it must be noted that modern Hindu nationalism always contained a serious reformist tradition as well, which, while using Hinduism as the basis of the Indian nation, wished internal hierarchies on the basis of caste to be abolished.
Yet the caste question could produce paradoxically complex issues. Gandhi, for instance, was intensely opposed to the practice of untouchability, but not to everyday conduct based on caste.
The radical approach to everyday conduct on caste therefore received its support mainly from the reformist, socialist elements in Congress around Nehru and the crusading zeal of B.R. Ambedkar who came to play a crucial role in the drafting of the Constitution.
Thus the Constitution established a number of crucial provisions for reverse discrimination in favour of the former untouchable castes. About a fourth of government jobs and educational places were to be reserved for these Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
This expressed a foundational belief in the connection between constitutional democracy and social change in the direction of greater equality Government moves towards extending the scope of reservations for the lower castes (with the Mandal Commission recommendations, for instance) have often been bitterly disputed by parties drawing their support from the higher caste groups, but interestingly, no organized section in Indian politics has asked for an abolition of the existing reservations.
The Historical Trajectory of Indian Democracy:
Democratic politics in India during the Nehru years (1946-64) seemed to follow the rules and conventions associated with western democracy First of all, the procedural rules of democratic government were in general punctiliously observed, though sections of political opinion were at times unhappy about individual cases.
Elections were held punctually, and generally there were no strident complaints about vote rigging or violent exclusion of particular groups. Former untouchable groups, however, have later claimed that they simply did not vote in the early general elections in certain parts of the country’.
Formal rules of cabinet government were also carefully observed. Some important incidents showed, however, that in case of disputes of an extremely serious nature, such procedural observances could be fragile.
The most celebrated case of this kind was when the Communist government in Kerala, elected by a thin but eventually firm majority, was dismissed by the Nehru government on the wholly unconvincing excuse that constitutional government was becoming impossible. In fact, the government had undertaken radical measures which affected the Catholic church’s control over the state’s educational structure.
This showed that if radical attacks were planned through perfectly constitutional means by a duly elected government, even a normally procedurally correct government under Nehru could construe these as constitutional anarchy and dismiss it. Similarly unsavory incidents took place with far greater frequency after the Congress experienced its first major loss in elections in 1967.
Indira Gandhi and Institutional Decline:
The fourth general elections of 1967 marked a watershed in the history of Indian democracy in several ways. At the level of party politics, they obviously marked the end of a period in which the Congress could simply assume electoral victory and concentrate on developmental policies entirely free of immediate electoral pressures.
This introduced a new kind of politics in which government policies were to have a much more direct and visible connection with electoral commitments. Sometimes, such commitments were so general and radical as to be entirely unrealizable, and certainly the making of such commitments eventually harmed the parties that made them, although Congress under Indira Gandhi (1966-84) initially gamed an immense advantage through the slogan of garibi hatao (remove poverty).
The 1967 elections also showed a more interesting sociological trend. Congress policies for heavy industrialization placed obvious emphasis on industrial groups and looked after their interests through protectionism, low pricing of raw materials, etc.
Although the agricultural sector also gained by the absence of an agricultural income tax, powerful farmers’ lobbies, formed by the mid- 1960s complained against an urban-industrial bias and clamored for greater attention to agricultural interests.
There was a slow but steady alienation of farmers’ groups from the Congress in the northern states from the late 1950s. By the fourth general elections, these disgruntled elements left the Congress and formed their own political parties, usually siding with the opposition.
Thus for the first time in the history of elections, the opposition votes were unified, to the great disadvantage of the Congress. Apart from asserting the new power of the farmers’ interests in national politics, this also started the process of the splintering of the Congress party.
Eventually, the absence of a single ruling party and the unending squabbles among opposition groups introduced an utterly chaotic period of constant defections.
This showed how the institutional structure, essentially drawn from some major western models, could face serious crisis with a change in the social composition of the party elites. If party leaders, unlike the Nehru period, were ignorant or defiant of known legal conventions, the institutional system might prove extremely fragile.
In fact, the following decade of Indira Gandhi’s regime offered a misleading picture of apparent orderliness that was actually created by the irresistibility of Mrs. Gandhi’s power rather than by a restoration of institutional discipline.
Historically, Indira Gandhi’s rule reversed some of the fundamental principles by which Nehru’s regime had ruled India and conducted the business of Indian democracy First, she reestablished the control of the Congress over the Indian political system by entirely abrogating the internal democratic functioning of her party.
As the Congress in the 1970s still occupied so much of India’s political space, this raised the question of how the democratic functioning of parties related to the democratic operation of the formal system. It was hardly surprising that as Indira Gandhi got away with disregard of procedural rules inside her party, she would try to extend this behaviour to state institutions as well.
She began to ignore institutional conventions in appointment of Supreme Court judges and conduct of cabinet affairs, but as opposition to her government intensified and slowly turned into an unprecedented nationwide movement which she was unable to control, she eventually took resort to a quasi-legal authoritarianism.
The Emergency (May 1975-December 1979) had a very thin legality. It was adopted by a legislature elected by a large but clearly outdated, over which Indira Gandhi exercised undisputed control; it put to mendacious use provisions put into the Constitution to avert threats to the entire institutional system or the territorial integrity of the country Emergency provisions were meant to avert threats to the state, not to individual politicians.
Although it was technically within its formal provisions, the Emergency violated the spirit of the Constitution, and mainly sought to deflect the effect of a ruling by Allahabad High Court questioning the method of Indira Gandhi’s election in the previous general elections. The politics of populism leading to the Emergency, again, showed some interesting features of democratic evolution in India.
It was dramatic evidence of a dissonance between participation and procedure. The fact that Indira Gandhi faced a rebellion in much of the country only three years after she had won an unprecedented majority showed a disconnection between the elective procedure and popular opinion.
By her populist rhetoric and partly because of the success in the war with Pakistan, Indira Gandhi won an immensely impressive mandate. But this actually deflected attention from the record of her previous government, so popular discontent spilled onto the streets soon after her resounding victory.
The declaration of the Emergency passed off without much popular protest, with major political groups watching with caution a situation which was entirely without precedent. But when they were allowed some minimal freedom to organize, the other political groups reasserted themselves and set up a single party to oppose the Congress in 1977.
The episode of the Emergency showed, paradoxically, both the fragility of democratic institutions and their underlying legitimacy, if not strength. Their fragility was demonstrated by the weary and unenthusiastic manner in which advent of the first authoritarian regime in India was treated, and by the fact that for about two years it faced little resistance except of unorganized local people driven to desperation.
Yet its end showed in some ways the opposite: a failure of nerves on Indira Gandhi’s part to rule indefinitely without electoral sanction, though she was so immensely misinformed by a sycophantic bureaucracy that she probably expected to get a reduced mandate.
This was in any case a reluctant acknowledgement of the principle that the exercise of political power required elective sanction. When the electorate was given a chance, they showed their determination for the continuance of democratic government by voting her out comprehensively Indira Gandhi’s period in uncontested authority also marked a departure from the liberal rules of democracy that Nehru followed.
One of the major features of Nehru’s government, as of the structure of the Congress party itself, was a commitment to compromise—between various ideological positions, regional interests, and social classes. Majority rule, therefore, never polarized opinions or interests to an extent where some political groups would become irretrievably alienated from the political process and the state itself.
Indira Gandhi’s tendency to use her electoral majority to destroy and alienate opposition, and to deny her adversaries even the general protection democratic procedures provide, led to a kind of political hostility that although initially expressed through democratic processes was nevertheless new.
Parties began to dredge more deeply for slogans and often began to mobilize along caste and religious community based ties. Indira Gandhi’s years in Indian politics worked an astonishing transformation in the language and issues of politics.
During the Nehru years, the main lines of party demarcation and political conflict were broadly ideological. The Communists and the Swatantra Party represented ideologically leftist and right-wing opposition to the Congress’s resolute centrism.
From the point of view of understanding democracy, this contrast can be seen not only as a conflict between ideological positions, but also as a conflict between political extremism and a politics of compromise.
One of the major departures of Indira Gandhi from Nehru’s political style was a conversion of Congress politics into one of perpetual confrontation.
Excessive centralization ironically resulted in major outbreaks of regional discontent, sliding, because of her abrasive handling, into immediate militancy and, eventually, insurgency. By the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated, she had left behind seriously impaired institutions and a string of regional insurgencies which have proved intransigent to all subsequent governments.
After Indira Gandhi’s death, Indian democracy clearly entered a new historical phase. The aspects of this phase were the decline of the Congress, which had previously occupied centre stage in Indian politics, and the rise of Hindu nationalism in various forms, primarily the growing influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After Independence, the nationalism of the state was represented by the Congress, and despite its many internal complexities and undoubted untidiness, the party held its ideology and political practice within some generally recognized parameters.
It rarely succeeded in realizing the shining ideals of complete secularism, an unequivocal commitment to egalitarianism, or the perfect observance of procedures. Judged against such high standards, the Congress always came out seriously tarnished and sordid.
Despite that, in retrospect, it achieved success of a kind.
This success was to be measured, paradoxically, in negative terms: despite furtive use of religious feelings, it did not use overt communalism; its members did not always observe rules but could be shamed into retreating when serious procedural flaws could be revealed; it did little directly for social equality but admitted a general commitment of the state in that direction—at least had a bad conscience.
The historic achievement of the Congress lay not in what it achieved but in what it averted. Consequently, the Congress’s slow fragmentation and apparently irreversible decline inevitably left a huge ideological vacuum in Indian politics.
Two very different forces have tried to fill it in recent years. There is still considerable support in India for a strong, territorially integrated, powerful nation-state. The groups who promulgate such a position are naturally disappointed by the collapse of the Congress version of nationalist ideology which animated this nation- state.
The strongest alternative to this nationalist vision is now the one offered by the BJP with a Hindu nationalist conception of India.
This ideology shares with the Congress ideal the territorial integrity of the nation-state. What it does not share with the Congress ideal is the principle of secularism and pluralism as fundamental,—it is not merely a Hindu majoritarian vision, but also necessarily hostile to the implicit pluralism of Indian culture.
Thus it is opposed to two central principles of Indian society, one traditional, the other modern. It is opposed to the pluralist and politically egalitarian conceptions of modern secular democracy,but, ironically, it is equally opposed to the traditional pluralism of Hindu religion.
The success of the Hindu nationalists would preserve the territorial integrity of India, but turn its internal political culture into something utterly different. If experience with BJP regional governments is any guide, it might not offer a remarkably superior administration, but would certainly destroy the confidence of India’s large religious minorities in the neutrality of the nation-state.
The second type of political force which might offer an alternative to the Congress is a congeries of regional groups which have no national perspective or vision and simply bargain with other regions and whichever party is at the centre for maximum regional advantage.
Although it is customary for nationalists to deride these groups for their parochialism, in the long run this null nationalism might be an excellent foil to the BJP’s tendency towards homogenization.
The fact that these groups do not have a strong, determinate idea of what the nation should be like, or what should be its cultural form, ideological content, etc. tends to indicate that they would accept a pluralistic nationalism and, collaterally, a procedural conception of democracy.
These parties are likely to be satisfied by a decision arrived at by a particular procedure (consultation, compromise, some form of weighted voting, etc.) rather than a strong association with a particular content of nationalism.
For similar reasons, they are also less likely to impose a particular cultural, linguistic, ideological, or religious character on the whole nation, simply because they implicitly recognize their inability to speak for the nation as a whole.
Given the strength of their respective support and social bases, it is unlikely that in the short term any of the main contenders in democratic politics in India would completely overwhelm the other.
The BJP’s support is unlikely to fade away or collapse suddenly. Although the Congress might fragment and decline even further, the counterweight to the BJP in the form of a coalition of groups which oppose it on secular or caste grounds is not likely to have an imminent collapse, Indian politics looks bound in the foreseeable future to muddle through on the basis of perishable coalitions.
This might strengthen the procedural aspects of democracy by bringing into relief how important institutional forms are in case of indecisive electoral results. Since all parties suffer from insecurity in electoral terms, they might all equally value the impartiality of titular and supervisory agencies like the Election Commission or the President and state Governors.
In a strange fashion, this might also gladden the hearts of economic liberalizers by shifting effective powers from the state to the market and by immobilizing the state agencies for long periods.
But this consequence would go against the long-term tendency of Indian democracy to allow the state to extend its control over steadily larger areas of economic life, and marginal groups have tried to acquire some control over state resources by means of electoral power.
Reduction of the effective control of the state’s realm of decisions would mean a restriction of the scope of social life which was amenable to democratic power.
Major Features of Indian Democracy:
The Problem of Representation:
Indian democracy in its early years was marked by a paradox: its formal principles were democratic, based on formal equality of citizens, but the actual social structure through which it functioned was still highly aristocratic.
Thus the political elite, who represented different social and political groups in the highly verbal arena of democratic politics were usually members of the educated middle class, predominantly urban elite.
Democratic politics gives greater importance to certain types of assets: by nature, it values cultural capital. It is thus not surprising that in the first two decades of the operation of democratic government the legislators and politicians, irrespective of their political opinions, came from a narrow, recognizably homogenous urban upper-class elite.
Political activities of all kinds in the narrower sense— in state institutions, the file-maintaining work of the bureaucracy, the verbal disputations inside the legislatures, and the legally technical proceedings of judicial process—were all carried out in impeccable English.
This, of course, restricted access to the relevant democratic forms for ordinary people who did not have the right education or cultural capital. Political representatives of untouchable castes were figures like Ambedkar or Jagjivan Ram who shared the culture of the elite and could speak their ‘language’.
Similarly, Communist legislators were mostly from educated cultural and social backgrounds, despite their political sympathies.
Representation, one of the most fundamental processes, was thus of a specific kind— representatives who could represent interests of marginal or less dominant groups like the former untouchables or the workers and peasants through the trade-union movements and Communist parties, were socially and culturally unlike the groups they spoke for.
Slowly, over the late 1950s and early 1960s, some inevitable consequences of democratic politics were discernible. Land reforms in the countryside, particularly in areas where formerly the zamindari system was in place, created a space for the emergence of a new class of richer farmers who acquired wealth and political influence locally, but did not immediately aspire to the culture of the urban elites.
Their representatives slowly broke into the state legislatures initially altering their internal patterns of functioning, use of language and styles, and, finally, the entire internal culture of legislative and electoral politics.
Democratic politics also slowly mobilized underprivileged groups like the lower castes and the poorer peasantry Gradually, this led to a fundamental restructuring of the representational system of the parties.
In the 1950s most parties were ideological, and claimed to represent mixed constituencies, mobilized on the basis of distributive principles of various sorts. Congress, Swatantra, the Communists, and the Socialists were all ‘national’ parties in a certain sense, and felt unwilling to be associated with the interests of any particular primordial group.
The Communists claimed particular title to represent the working class. This was not based on primordial identity, but rather on an economic interest defined in terms of class.
By the 1970s, the early signs of a fundamental redefinition of this format of representation were clearly observable. Two processes occurred simultaneously to alter the meaning of representation in the party system.
First, there was a subtle but undeniable change in the nature of some parties. The Socialists from the 1960s slowly lost all other support and became a northern regional party except in name. The Communists, after their splits in 1964 and 1968, slowly lost influence in other regions and became entrenched in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura and started behaving much like a regional party.
The Congress did the same, only in a way that was less discernible because it continued to retain some influence in most regions. Under Indira Gandhi, the Congress began using appeals to religious identities, especially clearly in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, wooing the Hindu minorities in these states and alienating the Sikh and Muslim majorities.
But what was more permanently damaging to democratic institutions was the enticement to religious groups to think of themselves as political communities. This undermined the randomness of outcomes and the indeterminacy of the constitution of majorities, slowly forcing the politics of these states in the direction of irresoluble conflict between religious communities.
But the more obvious shift in the field of political parties has been the development of straightforward identity-based parties which have equated the idea of identity with that of interest. Since the 1980s, two types of parties have emerged as the most powerful players in the political field.
First, there are parties based on religious identities like the Akali Dal in Punjab, the BJP in most of north and western India and some of the political groups in Kashmir which drifted from an initially regionalist to a clearly religious self-identification, and caste-based parties of various types, galvanized by the suggestions and opposition to the recommendations made by the Mandal Commission.
Between these two types of new political parties, political parties based on other types of affiliations, especially associational ones, have constantly been on the retreat. One accompanying feature of such homogeneous identity-based parties, unsurprisingly, has been a different form of representation.
To represent a backward-caste group, it is now seen as necessary to have the outward manifestations of behaviour that both its members and others associate with these groups. The idea that any other individual who does not have the necessary identity features can represent them or their interest politically has been fatally undermined.
Politics of this kind acknowledges only representation by likeness. Often this logic of representation has been carried even further by implicating the bureaucracy into this politics. For instance leaders of successive governments in Uttar Pradesh have openly declared that only Scheduled-caste officers can advance the interests of Scheduled-caste groups, and therefore have promoted officers from these groups quite openly.
This brings the logic of segmentation on which the caste order is based into the operation of democratic government with potentially unpredictable results. Although a departure from the previous idea of representation, which was at the bottom was aristocratic, democratizes politics in a certain sense.
There are certainly precedents of this type from the history of western democracy, particularly from the history of labour parties, which often based the idea of representation on this kind of social resemblance. At the same time, it complicates the question of trust which must underlie modern institutions, including democratic political forms.
It might introduce something like a non-territorial social partition between different identity groups. The effect of this has been that the discourse of rights has assumed increasingly complex form. While most groups speak in terms of a language of rights, the bearers of these rights are increasingly seen to be communities and primordial groups rather than individuals and their associational interests.
The obvious consequence of this will be, if this trend is taken to its logical end, that democratic decisions will become frozen into segmented groups aligned in relations of unalterable, permanent majorities and minorities-—a condition under which democratic decisions would become increasingly misleading and meaningless.
The politics of representation has another aspect as well. Democracy is often justified as a government based on the choice of the people. Obviously, this is an idea that has to be further refined. If choice means taking actual decisions about policies or outcomes, it is misleading to say that the electorate chooses.
It seems necessary to think of the process of choice as stretching from a wide and general end where the electorate participates through elections to a narrow, specific end at which the government or its relevant bodies take actual decisions about individual policies.
This does not deny the reality of an exercise of choice by the electorate, it locates choice in the relations between political parties and their personnel, with some very broad, occasionally ambiguous declarations of policies.
This should properly be seen as a mandate, to be distinguished, in a strict sense, from a choice. Further down the line, there can be other forms of choice like assent or acquiescence to general directions or policy objectives, which are eventually further focused by the real act of policy decisions.
One of the major questions in a democracy is how the electorate can use the necessarily blunt instrument of a mandate to get policy decisions of its liking.
The change in the nature of political formations in India is closely associated with a change in the nature of the mandates that parties have put forward to the electorates.
There is a broad trend of parties which is far away from large ideological postures like socialism or laissez faire, which were too broad to affect people’s livelihoods or incomes, to far more specific expectations of redistribution of government resources for particular groups.
The lack of interest in large public investments like infrastructure, observed by economists, might be linked to this political fact. The fragmentation of the party system has made the adoption of economic policies benefiting sectional interests more likely than government investment in general welfare or common interests.
It has been widely noted that the success of democracy has led to results that appear paradoxical in terms of conventional modernization theories. Those theories assumed that with the rise of industries and the entrenchment of modern democratic individuation would be greatly advanced and ordinary people would feel less attached to the- primordial communities.
But the actual consequence of democratic processes has confounded such expectations.
As democracy applied pressure on groups to combine and use the pressure of large numbers, voters have been mobilized often on the basis of their community self understandings. Through this caste identities have been politically reinforced. Instead of caste affiliations slowly fading and disappearing from political life, these increasingly assertive and important in the making of party political moves, baffling observers.
At the same time, it is difficult to regard these parties as manifestations of traditional caste Identities. Conventional caste practices were concerned with social activities Like marriage commensality, and enjoyment of property.
New caste forces are concerned primarily with the acquisition and maintenance of political power. Since political power in a democratic depends on large numerical groups, the trend in caste politics has gone in the direction forming new kinds of alliances across the traditional segmentation of caste groups.
This has led to the formation of entirely new kinds of caste affiliations like Scheduled Castes(created by Constitutional contrivance) or ‘intermediate castes’ created by the drive for large coalition for electoral purposes.
The consequence of this has been equally puzzling: instead of the principle of equality reducing caste identification, there is increasing y a tendency to assert caste Identities while claiming equality among them.
It has surely reduced the practice of caste inequality both by f reforms in the 1950s and the second wave of electoral politics of the 1980s and 1990s. While the first set of moves intended to work towards greater individual equality, the second set have mobilized opinion against hierarchical caste practice by mobilizing and reinforcing caste identities themselves, not by trying to abolish them.
Democracy and Regional Interests:
Sceptical views about Indian democracy often regard regional pluralism as a threat to democratic government. In the institutional arrangements of politics, regional diversity is supposed to be addressed by devices of federalism rather than of democratic government.
But if democracy is interpreted as government by consent, where political solutions would not be imposed on people who do not like them, a strong connection between principles of federalism and democracy can be seen: federalism is a representative arrangement for India’s various regions Representation for regions has worked in two different ways.
Initially, it functioned through internal federalism of the Congress party itself, not through period the Congress maintained its earlier consensual principles of functioning by making sure Representation of various regions enjoyed office, which was also reflected in cabinet making.
Although from a formal point of view, the first three decades of Indian politics might appear to have been totally dominated by a single ‘national’ party, with very little power to regional groups, regional representation has in fact worked quite well through the Congress.
However centralizing tendencies in the Congress during Indira Gandhi’s time led to more intense regional resentment against her regime, with regional parties successfully capturing state government.
Irresponsible and partisan use of the Constitutional clause for dismissing state government exacerbated this relation, and the 1970s and 1980s were marked by increasingly insistent demands for redistribution of financial powers between the states and the centre.
Regional parties have been primarily of two types, representing quite different types of opposition to the centre. Some groups were simply confined to regions in terms of support, such as the Socialists in the Hindi areas in the 1960s, or the Communists in West Bengal and Kerala since the mid-1960s.
Since the 1960s, however, regional parties appeared which had merely regional political demands, and therefore could not aspire to any national influence. The Akali Dal, the DMK, the AGP, etc., owed their political existence to regional issues. In some cases, when outplayed by the Congress or a nationalist coalition, some of these regional groups have tended to move in the direction of secessionism.
The relation between democracy and regional disaffection presents a complex and mixed picture in Indian politics. In at least three cases- Punjab, Kashmir, and Assam—attempts to resolve conflict through democratic elections have not succeeded, because, some claim, democratic procedures were not punctiliously observed for a long time in earlier phases.
If regional demands are not reconciled early, they have tended to move uncontrollably towards confrontation and have eventually led to the disruption of the state Itself.
The movements for regional autonomy in these regions claimed not a better deal within the Indian Union but the right to break away from the Indian state itself. There have been other cases, by contrast, where serious concessions by the central government successfully defused conflict and brought intense regional secessionism back into the folds of electoral politics.
The DMK in Tamil Nadu, the nativist agitation in Andhra, the Mizo separatist movement, and even the National Conference in Kashmir under Farukh Abdullah were enticed back into parliamentary politics after serious conflict.
In the 1990s, with the decline of ‘national’ parties the relation between regional politics and Indian democracy is falling into a different pattern. Since neither the Congress nor the BJP appears likely to command a stable and unassisted majority in parliamentary elections, national governments would have to depend on coalitional support of regional parties. Suddenly, the relation between regional and national parties might become strangely altered.
Since major parties would depend on their support for forming governments, they would have to concede substantial governmental power and influence to regional groups. Instead of thinking of themselves as players confined to regional politics, and having a predominantly negative relation with dominant national groups, regional parties would now have to play an increasingly significant role at central level.
Ironically, this might induce them to look at the central government in a different light, and alter the rules by which the centre-states game has been played for the last fifty years.
Democracy and Economic Policy/Development Policy:
Theorists of democracy with a predominant interest in political economy were wont to argue once that democracy is probably detrimental to economic growth. The primary reasons given for this were two: first, democratic politics led to instability of government policies regarding economic matters.
Business groups found it difficult to adjust to potentially conflicting economic strategies followed by ideologically divergent political parties who might succeed each other in office.
Authoritarian governments, by contrast, were able to follow stable economic strategies over long periods, making it easier for business to make long-term calculations. Second, democratic politics, it was often suggested, made for too close a connection between electoral politics and government distribution of economic resources.
Since winning elections depends quite often on making short-term economic promises to particular sectional interests, democratic regimes are chronically incapable of making detached, long-term policies about development of the whole economy, because such policies does not manage the requisite ‘insulation’ of economic policy making from electoral pressures.
Democracy in India shows a rather paradoxical picture in this respect. First, on long-term continuity of economic or development strategy, government change rarely affected fundamental strategy. On the contrary at times, the continuity was quite startling.
For example, in 1977 when the Janata Party succeeded Indira Gandhi’s Congress, it was logical to expect serious change, since it was a combination of political groups which had opposed Congress policies of state-led development on various grounds. Yet the government did little to alter the basic package of policy orientations on economic matters.
Curiously, the most significant shifts in economic strategy marked by liberalization since the early 1990s were introduced by a minority Congress government, but no party seriously opposed them at the time.
After a coalition of leftist and regional parties replaced the Congress government, they deliberately continued with the policies of liberalization instead of scrapping them. Short-term concessions of economic policy before elections have also been rare at central level, though in state elections such quick distribution of state resources has been fairly common.
However, since the state governments’ resources are generally quite meagre, the effect of such behaviour has not been significant.
Indian democratic politics, however, shows the impact of democracy on economic policies in a different way. Democratic politics was surely responsible for the continuous increase of the sphere of the state’s interference in the economy.
Though originally introduced by standard Fabian Socialist arguments, taken from Britain, about capturing the ‘commanding heights of the economy, it slowly degenerated into a different kind of politico-economic practice.
The state’s control over enormous economic resources meant that these could be used for political purposes by political elites. The only means of acquiring control over these resources was through winning elections.
Despite important differences about economic policy, nearly al groups of politicians benefited from this access. This meant, by implication, that electoral politics determined, to some extent, how this reservoir of resources was to be spent.
Paradoxically, the tendency towards economic liberalization, though justified by liberal arguments about the harmony between democracy and markets as systems of choice, is likely to reduce this indirect popular control over state resources.
If the state is slimmed down, and this fund of resources wrenched away from its grasp, the impact of political democracy in the structural operations of the Indian economy is bound to be significantly reduced. This tends to show that not under all circumstances are the logics of democracy and capitalism fully congruent; in the Indian case, at least, liberalization would tend to make them diverge dramatically.
Democracy and Social Inequality:
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, one of the major arguments in favour of adult suffrage was that it would eventually reduce social inequality. But social inequality in India existed in two forms. The first is status inequality based on caste, which is still, despite socio-economic changes during the colonial period, deeply entrenched in Indian society.
The Constitution abolished status inequality on the basis of caste, at least in public matters, by the radically simple device of the legal declaration of the right to equality.
But legal declarations while powerful statements about a society’s principles, do not always necessarily change social behaviour. Advantage based on caste could not be simply abolished by legal declaration because social inequality also meant unequal economic conditions and life chances.
Curiously, the rights in the Constitution bestowed status equality on its citizens and helped maintain economic inequality at the same time, since some essential aspects of social inequality-especially in property and incomes—were part of the liberal regime of rights.
It was believed at the time of Constitution making that democracy would support social equality in two different but complementary ways. First, the Constitution gave the state the right to use reverse discrimination in favour of backward castes, reserving academic places for them and, more directly, reserving government jobs.
To the extent, lower-caste individuals got these jobs or places, they acquired either equality of condition or a chance to secure it.
State employment, however, offered opportunities for a relatively small number of people, and the importance of reservations of posts in government service was often of symbolic rather than of great statistical significance.
Reservations in education and other measures were expected to work as a larger process of bringing in social equality, and the Constitution envisaged a phasing out of these reservation rules after opportunities had become more generally equal. It is in the second kind of measures that the effect of democracy has been disappointing.
Democratic pressure on legislatures has constantly extended the reservation rules of the state, both in terms of time and in terms of their coverage, most notably through the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.
But democratic politics has failed to bring pressure on the state to provide greater equality in the provision of education, health, and skills through which economic inequality can be addressed in the long term.
In recent decades, the shift in political conflict to questions of identity, like caste and religion, has tended to overshadow this aspect of social equality. It must be noted, however, that the demands for advance of the lowest castes, although made on the grounds of identity, do have an effect on economic equality in an indirect fashion.
In India, historical experience appears to show that democratic politics tends to bring social conflicts out into the open. It makes them more public, occasionally magnifies them and, only at times makes them easier to settle because of this publicity If the outer parameters of the state are accepted, it does tend eventually to assist in the resolution of conflicts.
In democratic contexts, due to immediate expression of popular or sectional grievances, both the government and the ruling elites as well as other parties with opposed interests get to know about these disaffections quite quickly.
Democratic openness thus works as a kind of early warning system, and allows other groups to adjust to such demands. But once demands gained currency, democratic government encouraged two rather contradictory tendencies- it allows radical groups to exacerbate differences of opinion and conflicts of interests.
But at the same time, since demands of either social groups like castes or classes or regional forces have to argue their case against other views, it tends to create a climate in which accommodation is eventually possible.
This can lead to the trend towards the composition of differences and de- radicalization that liberal theorists have usually found in democratic politics. After fifty years of Independence, the historical strength of Indian democracy is undeniable, and this is shown in the fact that no major party ever offers arguments against democracy.
But the subtler threat to democracy might come from forces which wish to use the power of democracy in a way which keeps some sections of society permanently excluded, which would mean a violation of the spirit of democracy through the use of its electoral forms.