Beyond Elections in India’s Democracy
Bidyut Chakrabarty
THE STATE OF INDIA'S DEMOCRACY by Sumit Ganguly, Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner Oxford University Press, 2009, 231 pp., 675
May 2009, volume 33, No 5

Indian democracy is perhaps the most-discussed academic theme in contemporary scholarship. Reasons for this are many. There is undoubtedly the growing consolidation of values in support of socio-political processes endorsing vox populi or the voice of the people. This is also a puzzle, for democracy to strike roots the society needs to be fairly homogenized that is simply not possible given India’s well-entrenched multi-ethnic texture. Although economic democracy is far from realized simply by holding democratic elections at regular intervals, India is perhaps the only postcolonial country with a fairly unblemished record of political democracy. While India held regular general elections other newly-emerged decolonized countries were busy, metaphorically speaking, in electing generals. The process that was rooted, among others, in the long-drawn nationalist struggle, seems to have unfolded, quite strongly, in post-independent India presumably due to circumstances in which democratic values evolve organically.

It is true that Indian democracy is largely a participatory device though one cannot deny its importance in articulating a distinct, if not powerful, voice that remained neglected in the past for a variety of historical reasons. In this sense, democracy is about values that are ‘woven firmly into the warp and woof of India’s political culture’ (p. xiii) which nobody can afford to ignore. This is what makes India’s democracy not only a politically meaningful empowering device, but also strong enough to carry forward the tradition by creating organically-rooted socio-political institutions. In other words, democracy in India is no longer mere ‘political democracy’; it has also unleashed equally powerful processes for ‘economic democracy’ by articulating the voice of the peripherals against ‘the politics of exclusion’.

The primary object of the book is to unravel the dynamics of India’s democracy by focusing on the four interrelated themes of ‘politics’, ‘state’, ‘society’ and ‘economy’. This is a political biography of India’s democracy underlining both its success and failure: while elections are regularly held, Indian experiment in democracy shows signs of weaknesses especially in regard to the socio-economically peripheral sections that, despite being a majority, have hardly succeeded in altering the prevalent socio-economic imbalances. The situation seems to have been worse following the acceptance, by the Indian state, of the 1991 economic reforms package that, besides creating stark ‘regional imbalances’, has contributed and also consolidated inequalities of various kinds among various strata of society. Interstate inequalities correspond with urban-rural inequalities because ‘the states with most rapidly growing economies are urban and industrialized, while those with sluggish growth remain primarily rural’ (p. 211). Nonetheless, most of the protest movements are articulated in liberal democratic terms, except perhaps the ultra-left wing extremism of the Naxalites, suggesting presumably the extent to which democratic norms are well-entrenched in India. As it has been argued, ‘those on the losing end of India’s still-unfolding economic reforms seek not to challenge their country’s democratic institutions, but rather to obtain redress by means of these very institutions’ (p. 205). Hence elections have not lost their significance though there are well-organized forces preferring ‘coercion to democratic processes’ (p. 132).

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