Democratic to a fault?

India, whose creation as a republic is the most recklessly ambitious experiment in history, has flourished. But old strains put the future in peril
January 25, 2012
Congress party supporters shelter from a dust storm kicked up by Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter before an election rally in Purulia, 2009

Just over a year ago, Barack Obama described Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, as one of the “most extraordinary leaders,” he had met. Praising Singh for his “wisdom and decency,” the American president said that from their first meeting, he found they “share many of the same values, the same goals and the same vision for the well-being of our people.”

Praise as extravagant as this invited retribution, and 2011 was a disastrous year for Singh, with the Indian media exposing corruption scandals involving members of his cabinet. In one, the exchequer lost a staggering $40bn through the sale of radio frequencies to favoured private companies at well below market prices. A conscientious official had warned the prime minister’s office in advance and yet Singh did nothing to stop it. The rapid depreciation of the rupee and a slowdown in industrial production also undermined the prime minister’s reputation for economic management. In December, a proposal to allow foreign direct investment into supermarkets—which Singh had championed—collapsed owing to his failure to convince his party and coalition partners of its merits. That record raises questions not just about Singh’s leadership (and Obama’s judgement) but about the health of Indian democracy.

The Republic of India is home to the most uplifting as well as the most depressing aspects of the democratic experience. On the one hand, elections are fair and regular; there is a vigorous press and an independent judiciary; and Indians are freer to speak, learn and administer themselves in their own languages than in supposedly older nations and allegedly more advanced democracies. The sustenance of linguistic pluralism is a particular achievement; the 17 different scripts on the rupee note representing an ideal, of democracy with diversity, that shames many nations riven by discord over language. On the other hand, politicians in India are corrupt and the police often brutal, the bureaucracy is incompetent, and the divisions of caste, class and religion produce much social discontent.

The two sides to Indian democracy were starkly revealed at the time of the most recent general elections, in 2009. More than 400m voters participated in the largest exercise of the franchise in history. I spent 16th May in a TV studio in New Delhi, discussing the unexpectedly strong showing of the ruling Congress party. That the polls were peaceful led to a certain degree of self-congratulation. As one of my colleagues commented, while our neighbouring countries witnessed the election of generals, we put our trust instead in general elections.

I came back to my hotel after midnight, exhausted but modestly content. After gaining 61 seats more, Singh and his centre-left Congress party were less beholden to their major coalition partners, the regional parties All India Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. They might now begin the long overdue reform of public institutions.

But while I slept, the other, darker side of Indian democracy was at work. That night, a large contingent of around 500 national and state police destroyed a Gandhian ashram, or community centre, in the district of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh. They woke up the social workers and gave them an hour to pack, then escorted them outside the ashram, making way for the bulldozers which demolished it. The office, the training hall, the staff quarters, even the wells—nothing was spared.

I had visited that ashram in 2006. Its founder, Himanshu Kumar, is a sharp-eyed and forever smiling man in his late forties. He had been inspired by Gandhi’s disciple Vinoba Bhave to devote his life to the tribals—impoverished indigenous groups—of central India. In 1992, he moved to Dantewada and recruited a group of local helpers. Ringed by mango trees, the ashram lay in a village about ten miles from Dantewada town. From this home the social workers ventured into the surrounding countryside, taking educational materials and medicines to the tribes.

These activities would usually be thought uncontroversial. But these were dangerous times in the area, with a civil war raging between Maoist revolutionaries and a vigilante group promoted by the state administration. The tribals were caught in between, as were the social workers. No one was permitted to be neutral, to condemn even-handedly the violence on both sides.

The war has driven more than 50,000 tribals from their homes. The refugees lived in camps along the main road, in leaking tents, and without proper access to food and water.After months of living like this, some asked to return to their villages. While the state wanted them to stay in the camps, the villagers were encouraged to go home by the social workers.

Provoked by this, and the social workers’ refusal to support the vigilantes, the state government came up with the pretext that the ashram had encroached on its land. The social workers insisted the land was acquired with permission from the village council and the case was being heard in the local courts. But rather than await the verdict, the district authorities demolished the ashram. It was no accident that this was done on the weekend the election results were declared. Who would care about a violation of democracy in some remote place while the victory of democracy in India was being celebrated as a whole?


The Republic of India is the world’s most unnatural nation and its least likely democracy. Never before had a single political unit been created out of so many diverse parts. Never before had the franchise been granted to a desperately poor and largely illiterate population.

Even before India became independent, the ambitions of its nationalists invited scorn and derision. In the 1930s, after Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party organised a popular movement against British rule, Winston Churchill insisted the idea of political independence for India was “not only fantastic in itself but criminally mischievous in its effects.” For the British “to abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins [who he thought dominated the Congress party] would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence.” If the British left, Churchill predicted, then “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.”

After independence the scepticism if anything intensified. The first general elections, held in 1951-52, and in which all adults regardless of caste, class, gender and literacy were encouraged to vote, were termed the “biggest gamble in history.” Though it and the next general election were a success, the writer Aldous Huxley visited in 1961 and went away profoundly depressed. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister, was gravely ill, and apparently overwhelmed by “the prospect of overpopulation, underemployment, growing unrest.” Huxley was certain that “when Nehru goes, the government will become a military dictatorship.”

The fears of Churchill and Huxley were widely shared. The Delhi correspondent of TheTimes wrote in 1967 that “the great experiment of developing India within a democratic experiment has failed.” The elections then underway were, he insisted, “surely [the] last,” for “within the ever-closing vice of food and population, maintenance of an ordered structure of society is going to slip out of the civil government and the army will be the only alternative source of authority and order.”

These remarks make for curious reading now, when India has survived 65 years of freedom, when it has successfully conducted 15 national elections, as well as countless elections in states, some of which are more populous than Russia and Germany; when the army, so visible and dominant in Pakistan and China (among other nations), stays scrupulously out of politics. However, Churchill and Huxley and the Times man spoke for many others who thought that India was surely too diverse, in religion, language, ethnicity and ecology, to be a unified nation. And its citizens were surely too poor and unknowing to be trusted to elect their own representatives. Balkanisation, mass scarcity, military rule—these were the futures most widely predicted for the Republic of India in the first decades of its existence.

Abul Kalam Azad, the great scholar and nationalist, liked to say that “secularism is India’s destiny.” Though a Muslim, he resisted the campaign of Mohammed Ali Jinnah to carve out the separate homeland of Pakistan. Muslims and Hindus had lived together under the Vijayanagara and Mughal empires, and Azad believed they could do so again after the British left, as citizens of a new, democratic, and religiously inclusive political order.

Despite the partition of 1947, there are now almost as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan. As a citizen of India, I endorse and echo Azad’s enthusiasm for secularism. But as a historian, I would add one rider—instability is India’s destiny too.

Let me explain. Because of its size and diversity, because of the continuing poverty of many of its citizens, because it is (in historical terms) still a relatively young nation state, and because it remains the most recklessly ambitious experiment in history, the Republic of India was never going to have anything but a rocky ride. National unity and democratic consolidation were always going to be more difficult to achieve than in smaller, richer, more homogeneous, and older countries.

The distinctiveness of the Indian experiment is imperfectly appreciated by those accustomed to judging by economic indicators. Impressed by annual growth rates from 7 to 9.5 per cent, by the strides made by the software sector, by the steel and automobile companies in Europe bought by Indian entrepreneurs, some western commentators have begun speaking of India with admiration. A country once written off as a basketcase is now said to be on the verge of becoming a superpower.

The headlines of the Indian press tell a different story. These are largely about conflict and contention. The disputes are sometimes local, such as a fight over a water tap in an urban slum; at other times they are reflective of wider trends, as in violent attacks on civilians by religious, ethnic and political fanatics. The disputes played out in the streets and in the countryside carry over into government. The Indian parliament, and state legislatures, are regularly disrupted by members shouting and screaming, and sometimes raining blows on one another.

The headlines reflect some pervasive faultlines. Democracy and nationhood in India now face six complex challenges.The first is that in three states of the Union, large sections of the population want independence. In Nagaland, an uneasy ceasefire prevails between secessionists and the government; in the valley of Kashmir, peace is erratically secured by a massive army presence; and in Manipur, rival groups of insurgents fight with each other and with the government.

Second, the territorial unity of India is further challenged by a Maoist insurgency in the centre and east. Maoists have dug deep roots among the tribal communities of the heartland. The opening of the Indian economy has had benign outcomes in cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad, where the presence of an educated workforce allows for the export of high-end products such as software. In other places, globalisation has meant the increasing exploitation of unprocessed raw materials. In states such as Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, mining companies have dispossessed tribals of the land they owned and cultivated, leading sometimes to their recruitment by the Maoists.

Third, the challenge from religious fundamentalism is receding but by no means vanquished. In 1984, several thousand Sikhs were slaughtered in northern India after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; in 2002, a comparable number of Muslims were killed by Hindus in Gujarat. Those pogroms bookended two decades of almost continuous religious conflict, fuelled principally by right-wing Hindus and by Islamic fundamentalists based in Pakistan. But since 2002, there has been no serious Hindu-Muslim riot. (The jihadis who attacked Mumbai in 2008 failed to spark retributive violence against Muslims.) The middle class is no longer so enamoured of a Hindu theocratic state, and Indian Muslims are mostly focused on education and job security. What prevails, however, is a sullen peace rather than an even-tempered tranquillity, in which the secular ideals of the constitution are not always reflected in practice.

The corrosion of public institutions is the fourth problem. This has several dimensions, including the conversion of political parties into family firms; the politicisation of the police and bureaucracy, with appointments dependent on patronage rather than competence; billion-dollar corruption scandals at high levels of government, with the state handing over natural resources and other assets to particular capitalists; and everyday corruption faced by ordinary citizens, such as bribes paid to set up electricity connections or admit children to school.

Fifth, massive environmental degradation promotes discord and inequality in the present, while jeopardising economic growth in the future. The depletion of groundwater aquifers, chemical contamination of soil, and the decimation of forests and biodiversity leads to resource scarcity and conflict between different users. The environmental costs of economic growth fall disproportionately on the rural poor, who suffer the most from land grabs, deforestation, and soil and water pollution.

Finally, there are pervasive and growing economic inequalities. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, is worth over $20bn. His new home in Mumbai is 27 storeys high and measures 400,000 square feet. At the same time, 60 per cent of the city’s population live in crowded slums, five or six to a room, with no running water or sanitation. These disparities extend beyond the city to the whole of India. The super-rich exercise massive influence over politicians of all parties, with policies and laws framed or distorted to suit their interests. The rise of left-wing extremism, and the growth in corruption and environmental degradation are in good part a consequence of this ever-closer nexus between politicians and businessmen.

These cleavages reflect the revolutions underway: the national, democratic, urban, industrial, and social. In older democracies these revolutions were staggered over time. The United States became a nation in the 18th century, urbanised and industrialised in the 19th century, and granted equal rights to blacks and women late in the 20th century.

Each revolution produces intense and at times violent conflict, which their simultaneity makes more difficult to resolve. Instability is India’s destiny in part because of its size and complexity and in part because it seeks at once to assert national autonomy, provide the rights of democratic citizenship, pursue development, and promote caste and gender equality.

To flag these faultlines is not to disparage the impressive strides made by the economy. If present growth rates are sustained for the next 20 or 30 years, and fertility rates continue to decline, then far fewer Indians will be poor. But the political system of modern India is, as yet, evolving. National unity was hard won, and democratic institutions remain fragile. Economic growth and social peace depend on a deepening of the original, plural idea of India, and a diminution of corruption and nepotism in government.

Europeans can better appreciate the Indian experiment when reflecting on their own difficulties. The combined population of the European Union’s 27 members is less than half that of India’s 28 states. Europe is a union of convenience, whereas the Indian Union was the product of a long struggle for independence. Yet there are striking parallels. The European Union sought to leave behind centuries of internal strife; the Indian Republic to overcome centuries of religious conflict and scripturally sanctioned social inequalities. In their own ways, both seek to promote political unity with cultural diversity, economic federalism, constitutional law, and democracy.


One can think of a democracy as a stool with three legs: the state, the private sector, and civil society. The state is required to frame suitable laws and policies, maintain order, prevent discrimination against individuals or communities, hold regular elections to allow changes of parties and leaders, and be ready to repel attacks from other nations or home-grown insurgents. The private sector’s task is, by one definition, merely to generate goods and services by the most efficient means possible; in a more capacious understanding, to make and sell products and promote philanthropic activity. The role of civil society is to keep both state and private sector on their toes, by highlighting perversions of the law and on the other hand, to foster community organisations that work towards equal access to, among other things, education, health and a clean environment.

The stability of any democracy is dependent on the proper functioning of these three sectors. If one or other sector is negligent or malevolent, the stool of democracy will wobble. If all perform adequately, it will be stable.

In the first, testing years of Indian independence, there was no real civil society. The private sector was timid and risk-averse, asking the state to keep out foreign capital, provide soft loans and other subsidies, and assume responsibility for producing everything but consumer goods.

With the two other legs of democracy weak and insecure, the state rose to the challenge. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, helped nurture a multi-party democracy, religious and linguistic pluralism, and a scientific and industrial base for further economic development. Vallabhbhai Patel, his home minister, brought some 500 recalcitrant princes into the Union, and modernised the civil service. BR Ambedkar, the first law minister, oversaw the passing of a complex yet visionary constitution that endorsed gender and caste equality, and balanced relations between the centre and the provinces.

These three titans had a supporting cast of skilled judges, administrators, election commissioners and economic planners, who assisted them in laying the foundations of a democratic India. It was this silent and still imperfectly acknowledged work that defeated the sceptics who thought the country too diverse to be united and too poor to be democratic.

Now, in 2012, of the three sectors of democracy, the most active is civil society. Between April and December 2011, a coalition of activists organised a countrywide campaign against corruption. Large rallies were held in dozens of cities and towns. Anna Hazare, the veteran social worker, went on several fasts to pressure the government to create an ombudsman with the powers to punish and imprison corrupt officials.

A second and arguably even more important aspect of civil activism is the patient work of grassroots organisations in promoting dignity and self-respect among the poor. In almost every Indian state there are citizens’ groups running producer co-operatives, and the community management of water and forest resources, rural health clinics and the like.


The private sector is also more vigorous than ever. First generation entrepreneurs have challenged the domination of family firms. Individuals such as NR Narayana Murthy of Infosys have achieved wide acclaim for building professionally managed organisations in an atmosphere suffused by kinship and nepotism. A new wave of Indian philanthropy is helping fulfil the educational ambitions of the underprivileged.

To be sure, where some entrepreneurs focus on innovation and institution-building, others pay closer attention to cultivating ties with politicians. The infrastructure, mining and telecom sectors in particular have witnessed the most egregious forms of crony capitalism, causing great losses to the public exchequer and even greater damage to natural ecosystems.

In 1952—the year of the first general elections—the state was the most secure of the three legs of democracy; now it is the most corrupt and corroded. If the state had not performed as it did in the first decades of independence, India would not have been united nor a democracy. Now, unless the state is more capable and focused, India’s future is in peril.

Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar—and Mahatma Gandhi—were leaders of exceptional calibre, the equal of the American Founding Fathers. It may be that large, multicultural democracies need visionaries to found them. Indians today cannot expect leaders like Nehru. But they surely deserve leaders of some competence and courage.

Alas, the political leaders of contemporary India are distinguished by weakness, sectarianism, dogmatism, authoritarianism, and lack of proper credentials. In the first class falls Manmohan Singh who, after nearly eight years as prime minister, is too weak to seek direct election to the lower House of Parliament; too weak to dismiss cabinet ministers whose own corruption or incompetence are acknowledged; and too nervous to travel across the country to address (as his predecessors did) meetings of ordinary citizens. In the second class fall the leaders of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata party, who have in the past promoted pogroms against Muslims and in the present condone rampant corruption by state governments they control. In the third class we find the leaders of the parliamentary Communists, whose party conferences still meet under portraits of Lenin and Stalin. In the fourth class are some egregiously overbearing chief ministers—such as Narendra Modi of Gujarat, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, and Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu—who act as if their party and government were merely extensions of themselves, who extol their own virtues through state media while savagely persecuting critics and opponents. The last class numbers those who owe their position to dynastic succession, pre-eminently, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, but also many other politicians whose bloodline gives them an advantage over more competent colleagues.

I have distinguished between five classes of politicians, but there is actually a sixth class, which some cynics claim is the most numerous of all—of Indians who enter politics merely to enrich themselves, who become legislators and ministers in order to cream commissions off licences and allotments.

The lack of credible leadership in politics is a worldwide phenomenon. The French complain that Sarkozy is no De Gaulle. British Tories measure the distance between Cameron and Thatcher. Yet it may not be only the disenchanted patriot who insists that India is, in this respect, worse off than most other democracies. Compared to France or Britain, the country is younger, larger, more diverse and much poorer. The institutions of democracy are less deep rooted; their perversion is therefore easier. Religious rivalries are more intense—an ill-considered statement may cause riots between Hindus and Muslims in India, whereas a similar remark may only provoke a sulk among Protestants or Catholics in England. Above all—and this may be both the patriot and historian in me speaking—by any standards the founders of the Indian Republic were outstanding individuals. That makes the actions of their epigones so distasteful to those who have to suffer the consequences.

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