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Democracy and the Indian Polity

Vinay Lal
A brief note for researchers: 18 March 2008

Democracies everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than in India, 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. The very fact that India has repeatedly been able to mount general elections since it gained its freedom from British rule in 1947, and on a scale never before 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. Indeed, assumptions about the robustness of democracy in India always take as their implied referent the contrast that comes to mind with Pakistan and many other states in the global South. Pakistan has been under military rulers for 32 of its sixty years of its existence, and even its civilian rulers have always governed with the apprehension that a coup might summarily remove them from office – as the constant tussle between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, each removed from office more than once to pave the way for the other, amply suggests. [See also on MANAS, Pakistan: A Select Political Chronology, 1947-2008.] In Africa, democratic states have had at least as fragile an existence, and military dictatorships, despotisms, and authoritarian democracies have indisputably been the norm.

So just what is it that accounts for the resilience and endurance of Indian democracy? Why has it flourished in India when it has failed in other states? And why has it done so even though India’s mass poverty, widespread illiteracy, slow economic growth, a large bureaucracy clearly indifferent to norms of efficiency, a culture of permissive corruption, and unrivaled heterogeneity were all, according to classical accounts, supposed to militate against the growth of democracy? The rhetoric of the state was redistributive, but in practice substantial redistribution was abandoned.

Some considerations quickly come to mind, and are offered here as an aid to rumination, and with the hope that researchers will find these suggestions of sufficient intellectual interest to pursue them at greater length:

1. The Congress, for all its authoritarian tendencies and its close identification with the Nehru-Gandhi family, furnished a considerable element of stability. In 1985, the Congress completed 100 years of its existence, and only a few Western democracies have had political parties which have similarly stood the test of time. To be sure, the Congress of Indira Gandhi, and even more so of contemporary times, may not bear much of a resemblance with the Indian National Congress during the time of Beasant, Tilak, Gandhi and later, but nonetheless the very presence of the Congress signifies certain continuities.

2. India had, from the colonial period, a relatively centralized state – and, at the same time, some machinery for local elections and political representation. Though center-state relations have not been without deep difficulties, India has achieved a not insignificant balance between Federal/center and the states. The creation of linguistic states was in itself an important accommodation in this regard. It is important to issue a caveat here about supposing that the colonial legacy was all-important: the British in India, for example, resisted universal franchise, and only after independence did this become a reality.

3. India inherited and retained a well-oiled civil service. India had what is called “a bourgeois revolution”; the demand for Pakistan, by contrast, was led by landed aristocrats. This might also explain why land reforms have been less far-reaching in Pakistan and why that country is still said to be governed more by feudal norms.

4. Notwithstanding full adult franchise from the outset, participation has been gradual and more easily assimilable without disturbing the center excessively. Linguistic communities; mobilization of low caste communities and of OBCs; the emergence of regional parties (which counted more on the ‘backward castes’ to whom the Congress had paid insufficient attention); and the advent even of Hindu nationalists: all this happened incrementally, as it were, and allowed absorption of these various constituencies into the national mainstream. Reservations allowed middling and lower castes a political voice.

5. India retained civil society & state institutions that have provided stability. Two that come to mind are the Supreme Court and the Electoral Commission. The same Supreme Court that sentenced Mohammed Afzal to death, notwithstanding the failure of the state to produce decisive evidence against the condemned man, also acquitted other men for want of evidence.

6. Strong people’s and grassroots movements – dalit, ecological, women’s movements, among others – have persisted and flourished.

7. A strong and, on the whole, independent press has characterized the history of independent India, though doubtless there are many stories to be told about the capitulation and subservience of the press to the state and more recently to corporate interests. Even if the press has often been a bulwark of support to élites, the vigilance of the English-language press during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, to take one example, cannot be denied.

8. One should not understate 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. One can argue this even while conceding 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 to relieve them, an outcome all but assured when the state has no substantive commitment to the idea of an open society and distributive equality. One can also identify other problems with such legislation: it has been said that something like 90 percent of the requests filed under the Right to Information Act emanate from institutions and employees of the state, and more often than not such interests stem from nothing more substantial than the attempt of an employee to find out the salaries of other employees. Ultimately, however, arguments against legislation that in principle is progressive are not easily sustained.

9. In the wisdom of the Indian people is the first source of India’s renewal. Time after time the illiterate electorates of India have shown better judgment than the educated. The poor are more committed to the ballot box in India than the elites; in the modern West, such as the US, it is the other way around. The ruling party was thrown out in 1977, 1980, and in several elections since then, including the election of 2004.

10. 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 outlive the Supreme Court’s present disposition to allow massive land grabs in the name of progress and development.

11. Though Mohandas Gandhi’s assassins never seem to rest, 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. As I have elsewhere written, Gandhi took great risks and was not in the least cowed down by history, the sanctity of traditions, or scriptural authority. There is something ineffable in all this; the place of Gandhi’s long shadowy presence in politics is hard to document.

12. The relationship of Sanskritization to democracy needs much further thought. The middle class phenomenon is less important as a phenomenon in absolute numbers than it is as a sign to the poor that their aspirations to enter into the mainstream of democratic life might yet bear fruit.

13. The intellectual class in India – comprised not merely of academics, but of writers, filmmakers, public intellectuals, and others -- survived the onslaught of colonialism better than did intellectual classes in most other colonized societies. It may have to do, in part, with the insularity, secretiveness, and esotericism of Brahmin life and networks.

14. Hinduism itself, I suspect, has facilitated the pluralist nature of the Indian polity. The attempt has been to turn Hindus into the proper religious subjects of a proper nation-state, but the fundamental anarchy of Hinduism resists such attempt. On the other hand, one can argue that the caste system is intrinsically hierarchical and oppressive. This subject needs much further inquiry.

15. The cultural and intellectual project of achieving the nation-state was taken rather seriously in India from the outset of independence, taking a leaf here from colonialism’s epistemological projects. Let us think of state institutions such as the Akademis (Sahitya, Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak), the ICHR, the state-sponsored histories, and so on; on the other hand, let us not forget the place of Hindi-language cinema. (This is also quite clearly seen in the Indian diaspora.)

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. In the General Elections of 2004, the Left Front won 60 seats and came to hold the decisive swing vote. While so far the left has show little inclination to revolt, and West Bengal is rapidly retooling itself to become attractive to the corporate world and foreign investors, the possibility of genuine and irreconcilable differences developing between the Congress and the Left Front can never be entirely ignored.

Certainly, if the persistent invocations of the “new India”, the roaring economy, and the entrepreneurial and aggressively capitalist spirit of India are any guide, at least the Indian middle classes have signified their assent to the idea that an economic rather than a political conception of democracy will drive the Indian future.

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