By Sakshi Abrol:
The nation-state of India has quite a few things to flaunt and be proud of – its rich legacy of democracy being one of them. India has been regarded as the largest functioning democracy in the world and has made itself felt strongly in the global economic arena as well. David Cameroon, the British P.M during his recent visit to India regarded India to be the beacon of democracy to the world. The well-developed and fully evolved form of democracy that we witness today has matured over a long span of time. It has seen both ups and downs, has waxed and waned but has somehow managed to survive. Despite the various dilemmas it has faced, India has been able to carve out a truly democratic future for it.
The future draws upon both the traditions inherited from the past and challenges encountered in the present contemporary India. The question is how has India managed to remain democratic despite all odds? How has the democratic regime not warped under the mishaps of parochial backlash, regional and ethnic fundamentalism, separatist movements and the stronghold of illiteracy, backwardness, poverty and corruption? If the absence of all these factors are to be considered as a prerequisite to the formation of a successful democracy, India would surely provide a bleak and dismal picture of democracy. But the very fact that ours is the largest growing democracy in the world shows there’s more to it than meets the batting of the eyes.
Well, before I put my hands down on these questions, let me in a jiffy explain the need for our country to in essence be democratic in the first place.
James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, no external or internal controls on the government would be necessary”. And having quoted him, I would take the liberty to add that democracy, often over-simplified for the kind of sensationalizing potential it has, provides a comprehensive means to control the government from transcending into the boundary of authoritarianism and dictatorship. The answers to the above posed enigmatic questions have continued to irk many political philosophers of all times. But as as Leftwich writes, “To study politics is to study critically the history of possibilities and the possibilities of history”, so lets try to answer this question in the backdrop of Indian history and then subsequently relating it to the contemporary India.
Our founding fathers borrowed the fundamental principles of democracy from the Western ideology of the colonial masters but one of the daunting tasks before them was its implementation in the hitherto traditional and backward society that had for the first time seen the light of liberation and freedom. This however did not give them the luxury of pooh-poohing the traditions and culture of our society to pave way for an Indian culture. It was all about reconciling the two and our national leaders were able to do that quite well at least the theoretical aspect of it as is enshrined in our constitution. Not only did our leaders vouch for political democracy, but democracy for them was a kind of mind-set or let’s say an attitude to life. As explained by Dr. B.R.Ambedkar in his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly, “Political Democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. Social Democracy means a way of life which recognizes liberty, fraternity and equality which are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity.”
Nehru, a staunch believer in democracy espoused representative form of democracy characterized by regular elections, adult franchise, parliamentary form of government etc. The very fact that proper elections were carried out after independence, in spite of the presence of no other party of a national level stature in the political arena, shows his commitment to establishing a well-functioning democracy. This however is to not to jump into an intransigent conclusion that democracy was flawless during his regime. The manner in which he handled the Kashmir issue (replacing the popular Abdullah government with a puppet government) and his role in dismissing the democratically elected EMS Namboodiripad-led Communist government fizzled out his image as a democrat. Also, his commitment to ‘the socialistic pattern of society’ created a paradox because of the rise of a hegemonic state had the potential weakening its democratic foundations that Nehru so assiduously nurtured.
This could be elucidated in context of Indira’s times, her politics becoming more turbulent as a reaction to the general conception that she was a puppet in the hands of the syndicates led by Kamraj. Her infamous ‘national emergency’ (1975-77) is seen as the only interlude or rather a blot on our memoirs as a democratic regime as has been chronicled thus far. The third and the current stage of our development as a democratic state also experiences some hiccups mostly undermining our commitment to secularism like the Babri Masjid Demolition in 1992, or the post-Godhra Riots in 2002 and some would also concur with the likes of Arundhati Roy when she says that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in place in the disputed regions of Kashmir and North-East also undermine the democratic principles. She even goes to the extent of calling democracy in India a sham but she is an “honourable lady” (Antony, Julius Ceaser) and so I do not have the qualifications to contradict her. But doesn’t this honourable lady who talks about the marginalised being robbed of a podium to air their grievances realise that it is by the very virtue of democracy that she is able to stand and speak her mind (even if it is anti-India or seditious) with her head on her shoulders. Does she realise what would have been the consequences had she been in Afghanistan or probably North Korea?
I don’t intend to propose a very rosy picture of our democracy. In fact I have already painted the scars as they were. It is time now to look at the beauty of it. Even in 1979, the Indian masses in spite of being poor and naïve did not bring the tyrannical Gandhi back to power. They did not succumb to her rhetoric on the empowerment of the poor. In fact, this very promise of hers further expanded the ambit of democracy taking it to the marginalized and the ‘have-nots’. Regular elections were a persistent feature even at the times when the nation seemed to be in a state of pandemonium. And why go far back in history?
The recent judgement on the Ram-Janmabhoomi title suit was met by a calm and composed public reaction. This establishes the fact that we have come a long way from 1992, and have been successful in establishing democratic principles to the core by the virtue of political activation and a mature civil society. As Rajni Kothari puts it, the Indian model is based less on coercing individuals and more on making them pursue their growth albeit in a given framework. It is based less on conflicting self-interests and more on reconciliation of such interests on a common ground formulated by the legitimized elite. The cardinal point our success story has been the fact that democracy in India is deeply rooted in our tradition and culture and finds resilience and depth from it.
For those who would give the example of the ongoing unrest in Jammu & Kashmir, my response would be quoting Jawahar Lal Nehru, ‘The sole problem with democracy is that it functions slowly’. It would thus not be a hyperbole if I say that the visit of the delegation to the place has had some positive implications and I strongly believe that it is only by adhering to our democratic rules that we will be able to fight this ideological battle. What we just need is a long term vision, an open minded approach and a spirit of learning from our mistakes. There is no denying to the fact that we as a democratic nation have grown and will continue growing till we reach the level of perfection and it is not without a reason that we are called the largest functioning democracy by leaders around the globe.