Indian Democracy at Crossroad
Avinash Shankar MAD12015 Politics Essay: 2 Topic Can post-colonial India’s political experience be characterized as moving towards becoming more democratic Democracy, the form of government where supreme power is directly or indirectly vested in people, has become a global discourse that can be gauged from the fact that many post-colonial countries have adopted it with remarkable success.
The dramatic global expansion of democracy in the last few decades in post-colonial countries speak volume of this most popular form of representative government. The ever fluctuating political dynamics coupled with changing socio-economic patterns since Independence has given new meanings to Indian democracy at each stage of its progression. India inherited a colonial state and kept much of its functioning architecture intact. Much of state practice, despite its massive quantitative expansion, is heavily governed by legislation passed somewhere between 1860 and 1947.
During the 65-years of long journey, India as a nation has witnessed moments wherein democracy looked to find its true meaning, while moments like national emergency during Indira Gandhi’s regime qualify as the abysmal low that India touched as democratic nation. Adoption of socialist pattern, the middle path between capitalism and communism, at the early stage of our independence and a series of economic reforms that began in 1980s were primarily targeted at delivering the true essence of democracy in social, economic, and political spheres.
This paper is an attempt to answer how Abraham Lincoln’s notion of democracy as a government of the people, by the people and for the people has been put to test in India on different social, political, and economic parameters at different stages of its progression since independence and whether ever changing political, social and economic dynamics have brought India closer to true democratic model. India retained a deep commitment to principles of parliamentary government during the three decades after independence. Indian leaders described their approach planning nder a democratic pattern of socialism as a new model for Asian and African development. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who set the direction of India’s development during the first fifteen years of freedom, pointed to his country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the hand and the communism on the other. Under his leadership, the commitment to democratic social transformation was an integral part of India’s development strategy. Nehru also tried to incorporate Gandhian ideals of social reforms in his development programs.
Nehru spoke of this mode of development as a third way which takes best from all existing systems—the Russian, the American, and sought to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy. In the nascent stage of Independence, the Nehruvian socialist model of development seemed to have worked well within the social and economic framework of India. But Nehru too had to face many challenges in the implementation of his development model. Nehru’s attempt to bring serious bourgeois land reforms was thwarted through a combination of feudal resistance, judicial conservatism, and connivance of state Congress leaderships.
Although Congress was content to accept the continuance of semi-feudal rural power, it adopted massive plans for capitalist movement. Consistent with this general objective, the ruling elite adopted a plan for heavy industrialization and institutional control of capital goods industries through the state sector, a largely untried experiment at the time in the underdeveloped countries. Indira Gandhi who became Prime Minister after Nehru’s demise gave a new populist dimension to Indian politics.
The shift of the Congress to populist politics quickly set up a new structure of political communication in which Indira could directly appeal to electorates. While populist endeavors like Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) and nationalization of banks brought her good name, she has often been criticized for changing the Congress into a highly centralized and undemocratic party organization, from the earlier federal, democratic, and ideological formation that Nehru had led. Indira’s regime, in my opinion, was the beginning of the stage when India started to show its meaningful presence internationally.
Creation of Bangladesh was the beginning of the India’s assertiveness at international level. Nuclear test conducted in 1974 was the extension of this assertiveness. Ironically Indira’s regime will also go down in history for bringing disrepute to democracy by imposing emergency in the most undemocratic manner. Perhaps it was the first blow to the essence of democratic model that India followed since independence. The manner in which rights and liberties, the two important tenets of democracy, were suspended during emergency reminds us how an authoritarian regime can play havoc in people’s minds.
The emergency perhaps was the turning point in the Indian democratic history because it paved the way for major political and social shift. It was perhaps the trigger that led to the end of absolute majority era and ignited the undercurrent of regional politics played largely around caste and religious lines. Easwaran Sridharan and M. V. Rajeev Gowda however believe that the end of Congress’s dominance and fragmentation of the party system have stopped short of undermining the basic power-sharing characteristics of the system and have indeed contributed to democratic consolidation.
While the seeds for the decline of one-power dominance were sown during Indira’s regime it became more apparent during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister of India. Some scholars however believe that the decline of one-party dominance and the emergence of a large number of smaller or regional parties which ensure that state-level elections are vigorously contested have had positive effects on competition. These developments represent political empowerment of historically marginalized groups and reflect favorably on the vibrancy of political entrepreneurship.
I feel that mushrooming of small regional parties can also be attributed to effect of anti-defection law enacted during Rajiv’s regime. Emergence of regional parties has also led to political instability due to opportunist attitude shown by these parties time and again. Rajiv attempted to bring party reforms and rebuild Congress as an organized party. He also played a vital role in tackling Punjab problem that assumed alarming proportion during Indira’s regime. Rajiv can also be credited for bringing constitutional status to Panchayati Raj, one of most important tenets of Indian democracy.
During Rajiv’s regime too the essence of democracy looked dismantled characterized by high-scale violence against the Sikh community in the aftermath of Indira’s assassination. Coalition politics gained momentum after Rajiv’s assassination in 1991. Caste and religion became the driver and determinants of Indian politics thereafter. Anti-reservation protest in the aftermath of the implementation of Mandal Commission is the stark reminder of the despair that results when the advocates for meritocracy lose their battle against the saviors of petty caste politics.
Hindu nationalist forces too jumped the bandwagon soon and tried to establish their presence in the Indian political arena through much talked about Ram Janmabhumi agenda. We are also witnessing a paradigm shift in the redistributive politics wherein leftist forces are happy with a kind of statism that protects the state sector even if it means stifling the rest of economy. On the other hand the proponents of Mandal fear that rolling back the state on economic reform issues at the moment when Backward Castes (BCs) are getting access to its resources would be exercise in bad faith.
Of late, globalization and economic reforms have given a new dimension to Indian politics, and for that matter to Indian democracy. Development has become the main political agenda pushing caste and religion gimmicks on the backburner. Political results in two successive elections in Bihar mark the paradigm shift in people’s voting pattern. It shows how voters are trumping the populist agenda in favor of developmental agenda. It augurs well for Indian democracy. The ensuing paragraphs discuss at length achievements, challenges and issues that India faces as democratic nation.
Despite the considerable success of the Indian state in holding free and fair elections, sustaining a free press, and dramatically expanding the franschise, the abuse of coercive state power remains one of the major problems. Frequently such power is used arbitrarily against the poor, minorities, and those who dare to challenge the state’s writ. Furthermore, police abuses are more pronounced in poorer states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where standards of accountability are sorely lacking. The evidence from such states of rampant deaths in police custody underscores the gravity of this ill.
India as a democratic nation has underachieved when it comes to protecting human rights. Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1990 was aimed at containing ethno-religious insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. It allows armed forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations. Under the garb of this act, security forces often resort to extrajudicial killings. The 2002 Prevention of Terrorism Activities Act (POTA), that came into existence in the aftermath of a series of terror acts, was sometimes used against political opponents and also infringed upon the individual rights and civil liberties of Indian citizen.
The secular structure of Indian democracy also looked threatened on many occasions. The project of secularism has increasingly been under threat as communal ideology and political forces have come to enjoy greater purchase in society and the polity. The demolition of Babri Masjid engineered by Hindu nationalist forces like Bajrang Dal, RSS, and VHP, doesn’t augur well for the secular structure of the country.
The Hindu nationalists’ hostility to secularism became evident in a number of different arenas, ranging from a systematic attempt to alter history and socio-science science textbooks to party leaders’ willingness to countenance widespread state-sanctioned violence against Muslims, especially during bloody disturbances that rocked the western state of Gujrat. On the positive side, the growth of a plethora of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on development, along with the growing participation of hitherto quiescent groups, are gradually resulting in a political system that is more accountable to the citizenry.
The roles NGOs are playing have the potential to reshape the much needed developmental path. In times to come, NGOs will play much meaningful role by representing face of common people largely ignored by political entities. However politicization and financial irregularities rampant at these rapidly multiplying NGOs could act as a deterrent to the primary objectives that these nonprofits stand for. At Independence, the imperative for welfare mechanism was obvious due to widespread poverty and lack of food security, specially in the rural areas.
Even after sixty five years of Independence, a large percentage of Indian population officially are still subsisting below poverty line and incidents of acute food insecurity continue to occur. Since 1985 Kalahandi has been more or less uninterruptedly suffering from food crisis of alarming dimensions and proportions, officially and disarmingly described as drought, but unofficially, by critics, as famine. The politics of nomenclature apart, Kalahandi has become a metaphor for hunger in several other districts in the more backward hill areas of south-western Orissa.
The most ugly part of the Kalahandi starvation issue was highlighted by the Baidyanath Mishra Commission Report that attributed starvation deaths in the region to a set of issues including corruption, fraud, misuse, wastefulness, and mismanagement of development. Enhancing food security at the household level is an issue of great importance for developing country like India where millions of poor suffer from lack of purchasing power and malnutrition. Right to food is a part of an overall goal of achieving the right to development.
Attainment of self-sufficiency of foodgrains at the national level is one of the big achievements in post-independence period. After remaining a food deficit country for about two decades after independence, India has not only become self-sufficient in foodgrains but now has a surplus of foodgrains. Despite many poverty alleviation programs initiated since the time of Indira Gandhi, poverty still remains one of the concerns and state and central governments need to look into it. Employment guarantee schemes like NREGA bring some hope even though effective implementation remains largely unaddressed.
India has made significant progress in fostering high levels of economic and industrial development. But when it comes to ethnic conflict in India, four sets of causal conditions have usually combined in different ways in different areas to produce conflict and violence. First is the fear of assimilation or cultural dilution and unfulfilled national aspiration. Second is the process of modernization by inducing large-scale migrations and by raising standards of literacy and aspirations.
This process of modernization has not only forced ethnic groups to live closely together and to compete for rewards and resources, but has also sharpened their sociopolitical awareness and increased their capacity to mobilize for collective action. The third reason is unequal development, poverty, exploitation, lack of opportunity, and threats to existing group privileges. Finally, political factors such as endemic bad governance, the growth of anti-secular forces, institutional decay, and vote-bank politics have also contributed to large scale ethnic conflicts.
The role of mass media has become more important in today’s context. Mass media has played a positive role in highlighting issues of public concern such as corruption, electoral malpractices, and economic instability. Anti-corruption movement launched by social crusader Anna Hazare could become successful due to large scale involvement of mass media. On the flipside politicization and commercialization of mediums of mass media don’t paint rosy picture for the fourth pillar of Indian democracy. Another area where we need to work is the social security for unorganized workers.
The social security problems for unorganized workers in India can be divided into two sets of problems. The first is the capability deprivation in terms of inadequate employment, low earnings, poor health, and educational status which are related to general deprivation of poorer sections of the population. The second is the adversity in the sense of absence of adequate fall back mechanisms to meet contingencies such as ill health, accident, death, and old age. Central and state governments also need to focus on social sector by ensuring larger allocation for such expenditure.
On human development index India is not comfortably placed either. Infant mortality rate remains one of the major issues. The incidence of child labor is among the highest in the world. Women have significantly higher morbidity and mortality rates than men. Though we have made significant inroads in achieving greater literacy, the numbers don’t sound adequate. Human development conditions are particularly egregious in four northern states, Bihar, Rajasthan, UP, and Madhya Pradesh. It becomes apparent that our democratic aspirations are only partly realized.
Large scale corruption, communalism, electoral malpractices, perverted forms of Muslim and Hindu radicalism, sponsored terrorism, regional separatist insurgencies, corporate-political nexus, apart from many other things, have been obstructing the India’s journey along the path of democracy. Through a series of economic reforms India has made its presence at international stage, but marginalized sections of Indian society are yet to reap substantial benefits from it. Strong political will is needed to put us in the forefront of successful democratic nations.
We also need to get rid of the corrupt hierarchy of bureaucratic structure because it acts as a deterrent to the implementation of welfare programs. As the citizen of a democratic nation what hurts me most is the deep rooted corruption, not only because it has become an exercise of power and impunity for many, but also because it has made its locus in the minds of people where it has become standardized. We spent enough time passing the bucks as to which apparatus/ apparatuses of our social, economic and political systems has/have failed us as the democratic nation.
It is not the time to retrospect what we achieved as a democratic nation in the long journey so far, rather it is introspection time for each actor of democracy including politicians, bureaucrats, and off course the most powerful people. This introspection will surely bring the urgency among actors to realize the accountability they owe to the democratic edifice of India that is standing tall after having weathered challenging times since independence. Spread of education and emergence of political, social, and economic consciousness among citizens give me hope that India will slowly inch closer to aligning herself ith the essence of true democratic values and ideals. I will choose to finish this manuscript on a positive note by going back to the famous quote of Harry Emerson Fosdick … “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. ” Bibliography 1. Mehta, P. B. , The Burden of Democracy . Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2003 2. Frankrel, F. R. , India’s political economy, 1947-2004: The Gradual Revolution. London: Oxford University Press, 2005 3. ibid 4. Karanjia, R. K. , Mind of Mr. Nehru,London: Allen & Unwin, 1961 5.
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