Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2022
ON NOVEMBER 25, 1949, BR Ambedkar gave his last speech to the Constituent Assembly. The speech is now famous for his warnings about the perils of inequality in India. On that day, he had warned that India was about to enter “a life of contradictions”. On paper, there would be political equality among citizens but social and economic inequalities would negate that political equality. He concluded by saying, “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
Ambedkar was both right and wrong. Less than three years later, the prejudices that he warned about ensured his defeat from the Bombay City North parliamentary constituency. The system of reserving parliamentary constituencies for Dalits was complicated at that time. Instead of the current single-member constituencies reserved for Dalits and Adivasis, at that time India had two-member constituencies. In such constituencies a set of Dalit and general candidates competed together and each voter was given two votes, one for each candidate of their choice. Ambedkar claimed that he was a victim of “corrupt practices” that ensured his defeat. His allegation was that the Marathi press roused people to “waste” their votes deliberately by putting their ballots in the same ballot box instead of the two meant for the different candidates, general and reserved.
In the end, the election tribunal found no evidence of “corrupt practice” and Ambedkar’s challenge was futile. But his warning about the danger of democratic subversion proved prophetic. Most of the ills that were to plague India’s democracy in later decades first made their appearance in the 1950s. The use of ‘money power’ in elections and corruption associated with securing funding for elections first made their appearance in the 1950s and not later. Elite fears about mass democracy, too, had their beginnings in the 1950s. The use of emergency powers to dismiss state governments also began during this time when the first elected community government in Kerala was dismissed in 1959.
Today, strangely, this period is held to be the lost golden age of Indian democracy. The first two General Elections witnessed just about a 45 per cent turnout. Since that time, participation in elections, along with the substance of representation from different communities and classes, has only deepened. Yet, Indian democracy is thought to be floundering today. What explains this mismatch between imagination and reality?
One way to understand these claims and counter-claims about democratic failures is to contrast the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of democracy in India. Many liberal commentators and scholars associate Indian democracy with leaders who presided at particular points in its post-1947 history. If the leader is thought to be ‘liberal’, one who “respects institutions”, then democracy is given high marks. When the leader in question is a “negative outlier”, democracy is “downgraded”. The modern democracy rankings and other measurements tally neatly with this leadership-based classification. The trouble with this contrast is that only outliers—negative and positive—are salient for the purposes of classification. Others are thought to have no role in furthering (or weakening) democracy.
In contrast, the role of the ordinary voter—the ‘bottom’ of the democratic system—is considered to be of little value in understanding the peculiarities of the Indian system. It is interesting to note that, while voting turnouts and party-membership numbers are closely tracked by scholars who study democracy in Western countries, these numbers are largely ignored in the Indian case. It does not matter that in India—a country of extremes when it comes to income and other inequalities—all voters, irrespective of their position, caste, creed, and any other marker, have participated in political processes with fervour. One reason for this situation is that most intellectual models of democracy track the behaviour of the “median voter”. In India, with its huge inequalities, it makes little sense to consider the behaviour of an illusory ‘median voter’.
Willy-nilly, Indian democracy gets identified with its leaders and not the democratic spirit of individuals who animate it. The result is that democracy is held to be in excellent shape when a Jawaharlal Nehru presides over it but gets downgraded to nothingness when a Narendra Modi is prime minister. This is a travesty.
Can there be a theory or an idea in particular of what animates the Indian voter?
In March 1977, Indira Gandhi lost the parliamentary elections and with that her prime ministership. It was a massive defeat and, in the context of Emergency and its excesses, along expected lines. But barely 18 months later, in November 1978, she scripted her return to Parliament when she won a famous by-election from Chikmagalur in Karnataka. In January 1980 she was back in the saddle as prime minister. The rapid changes in barely three years continue to surprise historians and political scientists alike. But the truth is that if the Indian voter abhorred the diminution of his freedoms, he feared the prospect of economic anarchy much more. When ranked against the inflation and economic chaos of the Janata years, an allegedly anti-democratic leader who would restore order was considered much more preferable to the ‘democrats’.
If one were to view that episode from our present vantage of democracy rankings and such things, it would be puzzling: Did Indians turn ‘anti-democratic’ within a span of three years or did the allegedly undemocratic leader become the paragon of democracy again? The old rankings mark 1980 as a year when democracy returned to India.
But this need not worry us now. The new democracy rankings have ‘solved’ the problem: now democracy is an amalgam of many ‘indices’, such as elections, civil rights, academic freedom, and more. The India of today is ranked below Tunisia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bolivia, and Timor-Leste. Never mind the deeply unsettled and questionable democracy of these other countries. Even Afghanistan has greater academic freedom than India.
In 2013, on the eve of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) massive electoral victory, there was little appreciation of the electoral tsunami that was on its way. In New Delhi’s political circles, the consensus was that BJP would gain from Congress’ misdemeanours and misjudgements in office but it would be stopped well short of the majority mark in Lok Sabha. In the summer and autumn of that year and well into 2014, the speculation was about an ‘acceptable’ face for BJP. Modi was too radioactive to be even in the zone of consideration.
When the man from Gujarat scripted electoral history, there was—for a moment—stunned silence. The country, especially its political parties and intellectuals, had become too accustomed to divided governments and realigned institutional boundaries in the past three decades for Modi’s victory to be comprehensible.
Many liberal commentators associate Indian democracy with leaders in its post-1947 history. If the leader is thought to be ‘liberal’, then democracy is given high marks. When the leader in question is a ‘negative outlier’, democracy is ‘downgraded’
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Eight years later, this situation persists. To an extent, political parties have reoriented their strategies and, at the level of states, managed to get back into competition with BJP. Even at the national level, Congress has stirred itself again with its Bharat Jodo Yatra. The failure to understand changes in Indian politics is most acute at the intellectual level. In what is an irony of sorts, the 1950s’ nervousness about democracy is back in vogue. At that time, these fears were expressed by leaders like Ambedkar, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and others. But after 70 years of running the country, the political class is much more sanguine about the prospects of democracy. It is India’s intellectuals and their global collaborators who are now engaged in doubting and openly questioning India’s democratic credentials today.
India is now described by a melange of derogatory definitions: “electoral autocracy”, “anocracy”, “backsliding democracy”, and more. Global democracy indices now routinely classify India as something less than a democracy. From civil liberties to political rights and from institutions to political parties, India is said to be “stressed”. There are other, more uncharitable, claims as well. The only thing that still keeps India in the ledger of democracy is its elections. But even that may end soon as political scientists now consider elections to be just one—relatively unimportant—marker of democracy.
The fact that Indians participate in their democracy with gusto or that the political system remains the provider of basic goods like food and essential services for a vast number of Indians—especially the poor—is not even worth considering in these ‘measurements’ of democracy. What the democracy indices and political scientists say is ‘objective’. What citizens say does not matter.
What explains this situation?
IN THE CASE of Indian intellectuals, the point on which their country fails as a democracy is, for the lack of a better expression, the Muslim Question. As long as Modi remains in power, this ‘question’ will continue to be answered in the negative and, with it, India’s democracy will be castigated to the point of being non-existent.
At the global level, understanding of India—transmitted through local collaborators—is confounded by fears about the fate of democracy in the Western world. There, a combination of apathy—low voter turnouts and widespread disillusionment of the electorate with political parties—and fears about political polarisation informs contemporary concerns. When this transference is extended to India, it appears as if there is no democracy left there. The fact that two-thirds of the electorate turned out to vote in two consecutive General Elections holds little water.
In the quarter-century of coalition governments, the liberal ideal of limited government came to be identified with divided and paralysed governments. Conceptually, a divided government is very different from a limited government. But in India, the two ideas were confounded. Since 2014, coherent governments that arrested the decline in executive authority are thought to be a menace to democracy. It is an intellectual hysteresis of sorts that even after major political changes, there is little explanation for them. To compensate for the lack of understanding, a different path—of least resistance—has been taken by Indian intellectuals: a strong, centralised, government is an undemocratic government.
The reality is that there was democracy fatigue in India after 1984. In the “muddled Mandal” years, voter turnouts remained low. Since 2014, these figures have jumped: the polling percentage was the second highest ever in 2014 and the highest in 2019. One way to interpret these turnouts is to see them as a reaction of sorts against political centrism in India. But that is interpreted very differently by political scientists. They describe it as “majoritarianism”. There is an irony here. Since 1952, it is the single-largest party that has formed the government, by itself or in coalition. That was never described as ‘majoritarianism’. Only under Modi, with the highest voter turnouts, has India been given that dubious tag. Never mind the fact that at the state-level BJP has to sweat it out in every election.
Soon, it will be 75 years since India became a republic. Barring an extraordinary turn of events—for the negative—India is destined to remain a democracy, irrespective of the adjectives used to qualify the noun. The fear that Ambedkar expressed in his 1949 speech seems to be receding even if the economic inequality that fed it remains entrenched. Today, India is among the most unequal countries in the world. The World Inequality Report (2022) notes that India is a highly unequal country with the income gap between its top 10 per cent population and the bottom 50 per cent standing at 21.25. Wealth inequalities are equally severe: the bottom 50 per cent owns virtually nothing.
Yet, these vast chasms separating citizen from citizen that have deepened since 1980 have not blown away Indian democracy as Ambedkar feared. Instead, the huge voter turnouts—especially among the poor—show that hope and faith in India’s democracy remain unabated.