Indian democracy: A tryst of continuity with change
New Delhi: If there are two words to explain why 70 years after independence the world’s largest democracy is still thriving then they are: universal suffrage.
The country’s founding fathers, even though the world’s oldest democracy—the United States of America—was yet to accord the same privilege to African Americans, decided that every adult in India would have a vote.
And mind you this was an India recovering from the twin blows of 200 years of immiserating colonial rule and the brutal fallout of the partition of the country. The socio-economic profile of the country was so bad that besides being vulnerable to famines, illiterates overwhelmingly outnumbered the literates. It would have been very easy to justify calibrated voting rights.
Instead the founding fathers exhibited tremendous courage and foresight. A fitting tribute to them then that India celebrates a remarkable moment—the 70th year of independence.
It is not that Indian democracy has not had its worrisome moments; the two years of state oppression unleashed during the Emergency will forever be a grim reminder to the country on how close it came to giving up its greatest asset. But the point is that India survived this moment and has probably become stronger for it.
Indeed over the last seven decades Indian democracy has evolved. Undoubtedly it has been dominated by one party, the Congress. Despite its democratic underpinnings and its premier role in the fight for independence, even its fiercest loyalists will concede that the party has lost its way. Surely it can’t be anyone’s case that the country’s oldest political party with a network that tops the Indian Railways and a more than impressive bench strength can’t find someone outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead it.
But like everything, the Congress too should be seen in the prevailing context. The polity of a nascent yet ambitious democracy needed the statesmanship of a Jawaharlal Nehru—another matter that he failed, unlike Nelson Mandela, to abdicate in favour of the next generation. It is also a fact that the leadership of the party did almost desert the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; unfortunately the tragic death of Lal Bahadur Shastri (who by the way was also a firm believer in the power of market economics) probably forever altered the destiny of the party and India.
Contrary to popular perception, Indira Gandhi, the much reviled PM who imposed Emergency in June 1975, initiated the recalibration of economic thought in the country. While she continued to thunder populism, her advisers were steadily defining a blueprint to shift India to a market-based economy—the sixth plan launched in 1980 (when she was re-elected to office, once again demonstrating the power of a vibrant democracy) was the formal document detailing this transformation.
Another matter that it took another 11 years for the benchmark moment in 1991, for economic reforms to witness an unprecedented acceleration—interestingly under the leadership of Narasimha Rao, a person outside of the Gandhi-Nehru fold.
This period also coincided with one of the most significant social transformation—the mobilization of the Dalits and other backward classes (OBCs). Not only did it accelerate the demise of the Congress, by eroding a key vote base, it also provided the trigger for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to launch its politics premised in Hindutva. All of a sudden, anti-Congress politics had acquired heft. Of course this led to a wave of coalition regimes and further diminishing of the Congress.
Something that was astutely recognized by Narendra Modi, then the three-term chief minister of Gujarat. Not only did he outmanoeuvre rivals within the party, he completely outdid the Congress at the hustings in the 16th general election. Overnight, the BJP had replaced Congress as the new pole of Indian politics.
Which brings us to the anniversary. Yes, it is important to look back and recognize with pride that Indian politics and consequently its democratic polity has demonstrated an enviable continuity with change.
However, what can’t be overlooked is the challenge ahead. It is clear that through a combination of neglect and failure to evolve, most institutions are out of sync with the new reality. How these institutions evolve will determine the form and context of India’s tryst with its 140th year of independence.