Democracy, fragile at 60

After six decades of practising democracy, India is still to realise its founders vision

Democracy, fragile at 60


At 60, the Indian republic is still a functioning democracy, but increasingly the country is not well governed. The evidence of eroding political order is everywhere.

Personal rule has replaced party rule at all levels - national, state and district. Below the rulers, the entrenched civil and police administrations have been politicised.

Judicial malfeasance has eroded the credibility of an institution which citizens would like to associate with concepts like judicial independence and rule of law. Various social groups have pressed new and ever more diverse political demands that have not just fractured the polity but also led to violence.

The omnipresent but feeble state, in turn, has vacillated; its responses have varied over a wide range: from indifference to sporadic concessions to repression.
Considered a political exception, especially immediately after Independence when the world believed that India’s democracy would thrive and strengthen, the country is in the midst of a “crisis of governability”, as Atul Kohli describes the slide, which Rajani Kothari enunciates “crisis of the state.” What happened? What went wrong? For a country with so much diversity and a democracy the size of India, there can be no simplistic answers to these questions; and yet what is striking is that the roots of this crisis are political with all their bearings on institutions. The story of India’s democratic deficit lies in an analysis of institutional development, or, more precisely, the lack of it. A deeper analysis of the causes of the gradual institutional erosion would suggest that India is at best a democratising country.

Indian experience
The problem of governability, which emerged in the late 1960s, has in large part been the product of rapid social change and mobilisation of new groups into politics coupled with the slow or no development of political institutions. When the rate of social mobilisation greatly surpasses the rate of institutional formulation for a substantial period of time, the political system will not be able to cope with the demands made upon it and political decay will set in. That has been India’s experience over more than a quarter of a century.

The early years after independence were anything but calm politically. Inspite of this turbulent past, the post-independence era raised hopes for a stable, democratic India. That was certainly the vision of the founding fathers. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and others, that vision took the form of new political institutions.
The Constitution laid the basis for a British-style parliamentary democracy and the diversities of the people were carefully considered in designing the new federal system. The Congress, the key institutional manifestation of the country’s newly discovered national unity, reached out to rural India to incorporate the previously unmobilised masses and the first parliamentary elections were held in 1952. For some years, elections, the inescapable sine qua non of a democratic system, were periodically held, large sections of the population weGovernor-general C Rajagopalachari (right-centre, seated on dais) listens to  Dr Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first President of Republic of India, after declaring India a republic. re mobilised and efforts were made to bring the oppressed masses into a modernising political economy, dominance by a single party provided stability and the new rulers enjoyed widely perceived legitimacy. The legitimacy formula that the Congress’s ruling elite devised was clearly expressed in their strategy for economic development: a harmonious practice of nationalism and democratic socialism. These were euphoric and extraordinary times for Indian democracy and its institutions.
It is generally agreed that since 1966 much has changed. First, the state’s capacity to govern has declined. The surface manifestation of this process has been widespread activism outside the established political channel that often led to violence, a problem compounded by the state’s growing incapacity to deal with the pressing issues of law and order, corruption and poverty. Below the surface lies the important cause for these political problems: disintegration of the major political institutions, especially of the Congress, marked largely by splits and, as Rajiv Gandhi put it in 1985, by “cliques”, “avarice”, “self-aggrandisement”, “vested interests”, “corrupt ways” and “sanctimonious posturings”. It would be wrong to say that these influences did not touch the only alternative to the Congress, the BJP, whose decline has happened at a faster pace.

Worst blow
Perhaps the worst blow to Indian democracy was Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency which marked the steady disintegration of Congress hegemony. Politics in this period was increasingly one of survival than of development. Following the split in the Congress in 1966 and after the 1971 war, there was increasing politicisation/mobilisation of the population. Indira sought to build on and to contribute to the mobilisation by going directly to the people, thus strengthening her power position vis-à-vis competing political elites within the party. By the late 1960s, because of personalisation of power in the hands of Indira, there was greater centralisation within the Congress and a consequent strain in Centre-state relations because the leader substituted personal rather than institutional channels of communication and decision-making.

There occurred a vast erosion of liberal values and the willingness of new leaders to work within old institutional restraints. Once these restraints were removed, there grew an intolerant view of opposition parties and of dissent with the Congress. Systematic efforts were made to destabilise duly elected non-Congress (I) state governments, thereby abusing the offices of the president and governor as created by the Constitution. By undermining existing institutional constraints on the use of power, Indira brought India’s democracy to the brink.

After he took over as prime minister following Indira’s assassination in 1984 and the general elections, Rajiv Gandhi showed promise of being able and willing to revitalise the earlier politics of conciliation and consensus. Some critical problems were resolved amicably and the Punjab and Assam accords were concluded peacefully. Rajiv also made efforts to improve relations between the Central and state governments, refraining from destabilising non-Congress regimes.

Rather quickly, however, Rajiv’s promise of a new, more conciliatory and cooperative political order faltered in the face of mounting intra-party conflict. He was faced with more electoral reverses in the states and one of India’s first instances of corruption at high places - the Bofors scandal - scalded his government. In the states too, particularly West Bengal, the Schumpeterian “democratic method” - the institutional method for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote - was overturned by the Marxists who had developed the fraud in votes into an invincible black art. Indeed, not so far back in the past, in successive elections in Kashmir, the Centre resorted to subterfuge and subversion of the Constitution.

Whither stability?
There has been a fast decline in the legitimacy of the state’s institutions -- the bureaucracy, the judiciary, Parliament and the political parties. The fact is that despite the strides taken toward greater decentralisation, India is a relatively centralised state as Kohli argues.  Amid the devolution of power to groups in some states, there has been a steady rise in regional nationalism, marked by the growth of regional parties. It signifies a growing political fragmentation which has thrown up hung legislatures with an ever decreasing voter turnout. While India’s first eight general elections were spread out more or less evenly over the first four decades, the country held five general elections in the 1990s alone. The last three general elections threw up divided mandates. They strengthened the concepts of contestation, which is so vital to democracy, and coalition governance which was, however, held hostage to the pulls and pressures of small but powerful regional parties with vested interests. These, together with the spectre of Leftwing extremism, have generated formidable obstacles to creating cohesive majority governments. The last three regimes have been stable, but has that given Indian democracy what Huntington calls stability or institutionalisation?

The consequent electoral competition has mobilised many formerly passive socio-economic groups and brought them into the political arena. This, per se, is a desirable outcome of a democracy. The Mandalisation of the Indian polity and the affirmative actions that successive governments attempted, including the Women’s Reservation Bill, were steps in that direction. Given the limited capacity of the state to redistribute wealth and the intensity with which electoral support has been courted, the mobilised and dissatisfied groups have further contributed to the growing political turmoil that weak institutions have been unable to resolve. This might appear to satisfy an important principle of democracy -- participation. But as Robert Dahl notes, it would be wrong to view democracy in this fashion if it ignores the enforceable rights and opportunities that citizens must enjoy. In order for the basic democratic institutions to exist in actuality, the necessary rights and opportunities must also exist, not simply on paper but enforceable and enforced by law and practice.

Sometimes we conceive of democracy as an ideal, goal or standard, one that is perhaps unachievable but  highly relevant not only for classifying and judging political systems (for example, as democratic or non-democratic, more democratic or less democratic), but also for fashioning strategies of democratisation, designing political institutions, and so on.

It took the United States nearly two centuries to become a full-fledged democracy when African-Americans obtained the right to franchise in 1965. That was the year blacks’ civil liberties and other rights were recognised. Less than hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War demonstrated the fragility of democratic principles and institutions.

Over the past two decades, India has taken giant leaps towards economic development which has centred on expanding free market economics to all regions of the country. It is not clear whether economic development, or the fruits of economic modernisation, will have any bearing on the Indian democratisation process, although western political scientists believe that democracy always survives when a society is sufficiently economically developed. The puzzle is: Indian democratic institutions were more robust when per capita income was low soon after independence; and that when per capita income is relatively high now, there has been gradual institutional erosion. Following the American democratic experience, in which capitalism played a very crucial role, it might be expected that India’s democratising trend will consolidate if the country stays the path of  economic liberalisation and development even if it takes another  60 years.


Social democracy
“It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity....in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.... Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things.”
B R Ambedkar

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