DEMOCRACY, WINSTON CHURCHILL FAMOUSLY wrote, is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others. One of its defining characteristics is its unpredictability, since democracy reflects the wishes of large numbers of people expressed in the quiet intimacy of the polling booth. The wonders of democracy have repeatedly startled the world as the voters of India have confounded all manner of pundits and pollsters to place the country in the hands of different governments led by different parties or coalitions. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would have been proud of this. His greatest satisfaction would have come from the knowledge that the democracy he tried so hard to instil in India had taken such deep roots, despite so many naysayers claiming that democracy would never work in a developing country.
As a result, India has managed the process of political change and economic transformation necessary to develop our country and to forestall political and economic disaster. Much as it is tempting to do so, this cannot, in all good conscience, be accredited to some innate beneficence that one acquires along with the right to an Indian passport. Rather, I credit Indian democracy and civic nationalism, rooted in the constitutional rule of law and free elections.
Every Indian General Election is immediately the world’s largest exercise in democratic franchise—with some 900 million registered voters in 2019, that is hardly surprising. And look what happens in these elections: governments are routinely voted out of office, and voters hold politicians accountable for their development promises. And they do so within India’s extraordinary framework of diversity: for instance, as I have enjoyed pointing out with pride, in May 2004, India witnessed a General Election victory by a woman leader of Roman Catholic background and Italian heritage (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim (President APJ Abdul Kalam)—in a country 80 per cent Hindu. That this India seems to have been supplanted by a chauvinist majoritarianism is a matter of regret.
INDIA’S DEMOCRACY HAS flourished while pursuing some of the most intractable challenges of development the world has known. Of course, fiercely contentious politics remains a significant impediment to India’s development, since reforms are pursued with hesitancy as governments keep looking constantly over their electoral shoulders. But this also ensures the acceptance of reforms when they are eventually made.
India has also been proud of being able to demonstrate, in a world riven by ethnic conflict and notions of clashing civilisations, that democracy is not only compatible with diversity, but preserves and protects it. No other country in the world, after all, embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does. Yet Indian democracy, rooted in the constitutional rule of law and free elections, has managed the processes of political change and economic transformation necessary to develop our country. This is an experience that some who are currently in power appear to forget, or devalue.
A nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, conviction, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is about the simple principle that in a democracy you do not really need to agree all the time—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree
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After all, India is united not by a common ethnicity, language, or religion, but by the experience of a common history within a shared geographical space, reified in a liberal Constitution, and the repeated exercise of democratic self-governance in a pluralist polity. India’s founding fathers wrote a Constitution for this dream; we in India have given passports to their ideals. Amartya Sen applauded this: “The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).”
As I have repeatedly tried to show in several of my books, the idea of India is of one land embracing many—and many with multiple identities. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, conviction, cuisine, costume, and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is about the simple principle that in a democracy you do not really need to agree all the time—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for over seven decades, and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, is that it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus. That consensus now seems to be in question, as the India that was comfortable with the idea of multiple identities and multiple loyalties, all coming together in allegiance to a larger, more plural sense of the nation, is now being forced to yield to a narrower India privileging Hindi-speaking Hindus.
The Indian voter has long since resolved the ‘bread vs freedom’ debate so beloved of intellectuals: the question of whether democracy can literally ‘deliver the goods’ in a country of poverty and scarcity, or whether its inbuilt inefficiencies only impede rapid growth. Some still ask—as they were prone to when three governments fell between 1996 and 1998—if the instability of political contention (and of makeshift coalitions) is a luxury a developing country cannot afford, and whether, as today’s young concentrate on making their bread, they should consider political freedom a dispensable distraction. Some argue back that not only is democracy not incompatible with economic growth and progress, it is the only guarantee that growth and progress will be stable and self-sustaining. But they do so with diminishing conviction, in the face of the relentless assault of Moditva.
Our liberal constitution, based unambiguously on the principles of civic nationalism, has been the bedrock of our society. It has allowed each Indian to create their individual political identity and thus collectively to fashion the nation’s destiny. But, as Ambedkar warned, a constitution is only as good as those who work it
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This is where lies the great battle for Indian nationhood, and for the survival and success of India’s civic nationalism. I used to aver that no one identity can ever triumph in India: both the country’s chronic pluralism and the logic of the electoral marketplace had made this impossible. In leading a coalition government of 23 parties, and then in losing office, the first iteration, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, of the Hindutva-inclined Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government learned that any party with aspirations to rule India must reach out to other groups, other interests, other minorities. After all, there are too many diversities in our land for any one version of reality to be imposed on all of us. The second iteration—the Modi government—has twice been elected with an absolute majority, and does not need the support of others. It is seeking, emboldened by its current levels of support, to remake India’s nationalism altogether.
Democracy is a process and not just an event; it is the product of the exchange of hopes and promises, commitments and compromises which underpins the sacred compact between governments and the governed. Democracy is also about how to lose, and that is something Indians have repeatedly learned, as multiple changes of government have confirmed. But democracy flourishes within a specific defined framework of nationhood, and that is where India is beset by the uncertain fear that the framework itself is being rattled.
THE CONSTITUTION OF India established the shared norms on which self-government rests, in particular the statutory equality of every citizen, irrespective of religion, region, or language. India’s civic nationalism is both created by and reflected in its provisions. The Constitution granted representation not to an Indian’s predetermined identity (religion or caste) but to each individual’s expression of agency. The governments it commands are supposed to be committed to the welfare of the country’s weakest citizens. Though poverty, social discrimination and caste tyranny still persist, the Constitution offers the victims protection and redress. Amid the myriad problems of India, it is constitutional democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot and to fulfil their aspirations. This possibility rests on a core assumption of civic nationalism: the development and strengthening of free institutions that ensure pluralism, protect diversity, and guarantee the integrity of the state.
Civic nationalism, as I argued in The Battle of Belonging, is vital for India’s future. While there is no easy way to cope with the country’s extraordinary diversity, democracy is the only technique that can work to ensure all sections of our variegated society the possibility of their place in the sun. Elections and civic institutions are the instrument for ensuring this. What is encouraging for the future of democracy is that India is unusual in its reach; in India, electoral democracy is not an elite preoccupation, but matters most strongly to ordinary people. Whereas in the US a majority of the poor do not vote—in Harlem, in 10 presidential elections before 2008 (when a credible Black candidate, Barack Obama, ran), the turnout was below 23 per cent—in India, the poor exercise their franchise in great numbers. It is not the privileged or even the middle class who spend four hours queuing in the hot sun to cast their vote, but the poor, because they know their votes make a difference.
As Chief Justice Chandrachud put it in his Justice Desai Memorial Lecture in 2020, “The making of our nation is a continuous process of deliberation and belongs to every individual.” The experiment begun in the middle of the 20th century by India’s founding fathers has worked. Though there have been major threats to the nation from separatist movements, caste conflicts, and regional rivalries, electoral democracy has helped defuse them. When violent movements arise, they are often defused through accommodation in the democratic process, so that in state after state, secessionism is defeated by absorption into civic nationalism. Separatism in places as far afield as Tamil Nadu in the south and Mizoram in the Northeast has been defused in one of the great unsung achievements of Indian democracy: yesterday’s secessionists have, in many cases, become today’s chief ministers. (And thanks to the vagaries of democratic politics, tomorrow’s opposition leaders.)
Separatism in places as far afield as Tamil Nadu in the south and Mizoram in the Northeast has been defused in one of the great unsung achievements of Indian democracy: yesterday’s secessionists have become today’s chief ministers. And thanks to the vagaries of democratic politics, tomorrow’s opposition leaders
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It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the lower castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power. The explosive potential of caste division has been channelled through the ballot box. Most strikingly, the power of electoral numbers has given high office to the lowest of India’s low. Who could have imagined, for 3,000 years, that a Dalit woman would rule as chief minister of India’s most populous state? Yet Mayawati has done that three times in Uttar Pradesh (UP), on the basis of her electoral appeal. And even the ascent of a self-declared ‘chaiwallah’ to the position of prime minister is a testament to the triumph of Indian democracy.
This year we celebrated the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence. In the 50th summer of India’s Independence, KR Narayanan, a Malayali Dalit—a man who was born in a thatched hut with no toilet and no running water, whose university refused to award him his degree at the same ceremony as his upper-caste classmates—was elected president of India. He led an India whose injustices and inequalities he had keenly felt as a member of an underprivileged community; yet an India that offered—through its brave if flawed experiment in constitutional democracy, secularism, affirmative governmental action, and change through the ballot box—the prospect of overcoming these injustices. Five years later, he was succeeded by a Tamil Muslim, a fisherman’s son who sold newspapers in the street as a boy, and who happened to be the father of India’s missile programme. For five years till this summer, the highest office in the land was again occupied by a member of the Dalit community, Ram Nath Kovind, who rose to the top from humble beginnings in UP, and whose wife was photographed at her sewing machine, stitching masks for the poor to ward off the coronavirus. Today, Rashtrapati Bhavan hosts an Adivasi woman, a member of the original inhabitants of our ancient land. If the presidency symbolises the Indian state, it is still a symbol of India’s diversity, and its egalitarian democracy.
Our liberal, inclusive, and just Constitution, based unambiguously on the principles of civic nationalism, has been the bedrock of our society, a guiding document that historically secured the inalienable rights of all Indians. It has not only consolidated and distilled the best of our democratic values, ideas for which our forefathers gave their lives at the height of our nationalist struggle, but has served to liberate the collective aspirations of our people. In the remarkable work of the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution served as a reminder that our country was always greater than the sum of our differences and that our diversity of thought, expression, and ideology was, and can be, our greatest strength. The Constitution allowed each Indian to create their individual political identity and thus collectively to fashion the nation’s destiny. But, as Ambedkar warned, a Constitution is only as good as those who work it. That is where, sadly, India seems today to be falling short.
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