From that midnight ‘tryst’ to the high noon – Indian democracy

The recent gangrape in Delhi and the government’s response to the demonstrations in the city has been the most disappointing sight for me. Corruption, scams, policy screw ups… all that was fine with me. But stifling such a protest wasn’t what I thought one would see in India at least (like shutting down metro stations to prevent protestors from getting together). This set me exploring how far has India come along on the democracy road or has it actually drifted away from its path?

Independent India was all about experiments and grand ones at that to begin with. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, felt that the new born nation cannot afford the revolutionary way of the left nor can it afford to be socialist in its approach to nation building. He proposed “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems- the Russian, the American and others- and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”[i] With independence, India’s political landscape began transforming in a manner that would later have accumulated as not quite favourable or even reasonably reflecting democracy in spirit. Sudipta Kaviraj articulates the phases of political transformation as an early period of realignment (that happened around independence), experimentation (when India moved to a passive capitalist growth led economic system), consolidation and instability (a degenerative phase of Nehruvian ideas and Indo-China, Indo-Pak wars). [ii]

Although many views on how old is democracy in India exist, with some Hindu nationalists also claiming that the appointment of kings too was democratic and that the idea of democracy is not new to India. It is also argued that with the British, democracy has only revisited India. These scripture based reasons of democracy are of little relevance to the scope here. It should be interesting to map the emergence of democracy in a post-colonial India. That democracy arises from a peculiar set of historical, social and economic circumstances is helpful in explaining much of the values that independent India inherited, which determined its approach to nation building and governance.

While presenting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that “democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organization”.[iii] Ambedkar made remarks in that address to the Assembly, which in hindsight appear landmark. These can also be considered as a benchmark to understand that where did India aspire to start and where did it set its eye as a democracy. Doing this, we can then look at the events and explore if she did reach anywhere near that or has only gone wayward in the six decades since Independence. Ambedkar reasoned that three things must be done if India wishes to maintain democracy not only in its form but also in fact. First, he emphasizes, is that constitutional methods must be adhered to, for achieving social and economic objectives. When the nation didn’t have a constitution, movements resorting to unconstitutional methods might have been justified, but now that there is one, no justification stands reasonable for resorting to unconstitutional means. Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’, as used post-Independence, was also viewed as an unconstitutional way to achieve an objective which a group felt was in its interest.

Contrasting this view with recent movements in anti-corruption, people’s rights to natural resources, right to reservation in public services etc, one can notice the divergence from the original thought that India set out with. Second, that in a democracy people should not vest so much power in a single person or leader that he may subvert the institutions. Any form of ‘hero worship’ too must be avoided. Although, there is nothing wrong with honouring great men for their service, there are limits to being grateful. Third, Ambedkar urges people not to be content with political democracy alone. He reasons that social democracy must form the base on which political democracy rests. Social democracy, he states, is a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life.[iv]

This address in November 1949, by Ambedkar sets the larger context of understanding of democracy in India and the practice of it. Although, it is debatable how it unfolded over the years, the intent it can be said was much as Ambedkar outlined while presenting the draft Constitution

Democracy- Increasing divide in spirit & practice

When Congress came to power, a realignment of the earlier order happened, as Sudipta Kaviraj articulates. To some within the party, Congress’ departure from reformist agenda was a great concern. For Nehru, as a Prime Minister, democratic social transformation became an integral part of economic strategy. This turned out to be at odds with the socialist ideas as well. He pointed to “country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other”.[v] These differences marked the changes that Congress underwent, and its emergence as a party led by Nehru’s ideas about nation building. In this approach, India got its first streak of capitalist development by the way of extensive planning exercises and massive government programs in infrastructure building and public sector enterprises. This shift is important to note because in about a decade’s time a heavy bureaucratization of the government takes place which in later years would come to determine (and undermine) the democratic process in the country. Nehru’s industrialization led approach to growth and modernization had a good run during the period 1950-1964. But it also had consequences which would lead to serious polarization of Congress party, a national dissatisfaction on over emphasis on industrialization whereas India was still agrarian (with a majority of them being small farmers) and an over dependence on Soviet technology and assistance. These factors eventually precipitated into disillusionment and a political crisis with the death of Nehru in 1964. The phase of assertion by regional political parties and establishing their rule in Indian states was about to begin. Within three years of Nehru’s death, the CPI (M) managed to regroup in many Indian states and run for election in those states. Similarly, the rich farmers from the northern belt had formed stronger associations to assert themselves. Several other forms of associations and regional political parties had begun to emerge making the larger political scene noisier and diverse. Theoretically, democracy was actually being well lived by representation from several different groups, communities and classes that India is made of. But this did not guarantee that the government, its institutions and its work was all in public interest.

Indira Gandhi came to power after Nehru, her father, passed away. This was a period of political turmoil which was answered by appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor. Her coming to power marks a major blow to the spirit of democracy in India but in a way it also helped the country look back at what it started with, and attempt a reorientation. It is paradoxical that Indira Gandhi’s style led to a gradual decline of election based choice of leaders within the party and at the same time her rise as a leader nationally. Her mass appeal and the ability to directly connect with the masses bypassing the regional leaders was an interesting phenomenon. While she was leading a party (Congress), everything in the party was about decisions made by her and passed on to the party members. Critical political decision making also began shifting to higher levels of bureaucracy. This had a very debilitating effect on Congress party. Nationally, elections turned into populist referendums which completely undermined the electoral process. The period of emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 is another landmark in the progression of democracy in India. This 18 month period made a good time for leaders and the people of India to experience what it is like to exist in a space of limited or no civic rights that democracy guaranteed. Patronage and cronyism infiltrated politics even when Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1985. During this entire period, the gulf in practice of democracy kept widening, but it would be difficult to present a contrary argument that India on the whole did not move towards becoming more democratic. This is because in spite of severe damages done to the political system by feudal and class led politics, the chaos that it caused only made several other groups emerge and put up a strong opposition. Although, the emergence and assertion of political parties from minority groups did take a considerable time, the sum total of the events by a great measure, moved towards heterogeneity and multi-party political system.

Dalit groups emerged faster as a consequence of this higher class dominated politics. For instance, formation of dalit political parties like Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers and more importantly BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) which was formed in 1984. From its formation in 1984 to its emergence as single majority party in 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, BSP makes an interesting case in rise of oppressed and marginal groups in the political system of India. This could also be seen as a consequence of the early democratic principles that were enshrined in the Constitution of India. It could also be said that the process took a considerable time. But the fact that it emerged on its own accord and from the people themselves makes it peculiar and also ensures that the change is lasting.


i) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010
ii) Kaviraj, Sudipta, (1988), A Critique of the Passive Revolution, in Chatterjee, Partha, State and   Politics in India, OUP 2002 
iii) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010.
iv) Constituent Assembly of India – Volume Date Accessed, Sept 30, 2012
v) Harrison, Kevin and Boyd, Tony, Understanding political ideas and movements. Manchester University Press, 2003

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