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).
India’s democracy provides a unique structure of political accommodation without a parallel in history. For instance, the party system that has emerged in postcolonial India hardly corresponds with the conventional theoretical models. Yet, ‘the fragmentation of the party system… has not undermined the basic power-sharing character of the system and has thus helped to consolidate democracy’ (p. 21). In such circumstances, ideology is seldom a cementing factor and what bring parties together to form a coalition are undoubtedly considerations other than ideological compatibility. The recognition of political coalition as the most appropriate institutional form of politics is also the outcome of the fragmentation of social bases of political parties. Regional parties have become critical to the entire processes of coalition-formation at the national level. Given the growing importance of the regions, the pan-Indian political parties are more or less reconciled to accepting the regional and local leaders as partners while staking claim to form the government. In this changed environment, ‘the new breed of ambitious, upwardly mobile leaders [of the regions] . . . have developed for themselves a new federal space in which the nation and the region can coexist’ (p. 101). By seeking to accommodate diverse political views and sentiments, India’s democratic experiment has also redefined politics as ‘not merely an anomie battle for power and short term gain but the release of pent-up creativity and visions that provide a fertile and cohesive backdrop of the realignment of social forces’ (p. 103). A complementary process seems to have begun which is euphemistically defined as ‘a silent revolution’ whereby the demographically preponderant and yet politically peripheral Other Backward Classes have become crucial players in politics. ‘The democratization of Indian democracy’ may however appear to be insignificant since ‘the state apparatus is shrinking, whereas the private sector is flourishing—so much so that the lower castes may well have quota [of representation] in bodies which are becoming empty shells’ (p. 82). Despite the obvious consequences of ‘privatization’, the rise of ‘the subalterns’ in politics is a remarkable achievement due largely to the consolidation of supportive institutions and institutional mechanism drawn on the lofty ideals of constitutional democracy. Of various democratic institutions, judiciary in India seems to have played a critical role in defending popular democratic aspirations. The growing mass disenchantment with executive authority perhaps explains the ascendancy of the judiciary. Hence ‘from waste management, clean air and education policy to property rights and religious liberty as well as many administrative matters—it is hard to think of a single issue relevant to politics and policy on which the courts of India have not left their mark’ (p. 116). Whether the relatively ‘hegemonic’ judiciary is a threat to India’s liberal democratic fabric is too difficult to find an instant answer to though there is no doubt that this is likely to cause an imbalance in the constitutional structure of power that has emerged since the promulgation of the Constitution in India in 1950.
India’s democratic experiment is therefore unique that cannot be captured within the theoretical format of ‘received wisdom’. While political institutions are constantly redefined to address new issues of relevance similar processes are at work to redraw the contour of politics at the grassroots. The scene is certainly fluid contributing to the articulation of ‘multiple voices’ testifying the ascendancy of the hitherto peripheral sections of society. This is how India’s democracy fulfils a historical role not only in evolving a democratic structure of governance, but also in creating a powerful mechanism of empowerment for those remaining in the margins of society. There are, of course, aberrations because the constant recurrence of ethnic and communal conflicts severely damage India’s multicultural social fabric which are reflective of the failure of our democratic processes to mitigate genuine ethnic and communal grievances though India has ‘a relatively decent track record of accepting ethnic diversity and broadening political participation’ (p. 63) in comparison with her South Asian neighbours. Similarly, the role of civil society is not without blemish. Despite its critical significance in strengthening India’s democracy, civil society organizations are severely constrained due to ‘limiting its ability to secure desired political outcomes’ (p. 158).
Nonetheless, the widespread dissatisfaction with political institutions has created circumstances in which the civil society organizations seem to have emerged as the only available platform for redressal of public grievances. Illustrative here is the role of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) that initiated ‘a paradigmatic grassroots movement’ (p. 165) against corruption. The most significant outcome of this movement was the articulation of the 2005 Right to Information Act in India which is undoubtedly the most effective step towards transparency and fair play in public governance. The Act may not be adequate to combat the well-entrenched corruption effectively though it has set in motion a process subjecting those in political authority to constant public scrutiny. That is not a mean achievement in socio-culturally divided India since democracy was, as the most profound and also respected theorist of democracy, J.S. Mill warned, ‘next to impossible in a country made of different nationalities’.
Bidyut Chakrabarty is Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi, Delhi.