“India Is The Most Surprising Democracy There Has Ever Been”

Ed Note: The following is an excerpt from “India’s Founding Moment” by Madhav Khosla, and published by HarperCollins Publishers India. 


Scholars of contemporary India, one should acknowledge, have been alive to its unprecedented democratic form. This theme has often been the framing device for historical studies of India’s postcolonial life. Similarly, political scientists have investigated the inexplicable survival of Indian democracy. There have been attempts at rationalizing this survival to see how India might fit into the universal rules of politics. The question has also been posed comparatively, typically comparing the nation’s fortunes with those of its neighbor Pakistan. Such inquiries are part of a broader conversation. In historical and comparative studies of politics, there has long been an interest in many stages of modernization occurring at once. Much effort has been made to understand why democratic transitions occur as well as why some transitions are successful, with some resulting in democracies that consolidate whereas others result in breakdowns. Which variables best explain such divergent realities? Do democratic fortunes turn on wealth and income? Are they shaped by different class interests? What role is played by countermajoritarian institutions that can protect old elites? How do political parties influence regime outcomes? These are unavoidable questions — and why the sudden expansion in political participation in India’s fragile climate did not go haywire is a query that is hard to ignore when one attends to the experience of so many other postcolonial experiments. A recent meditation on global democracy put the matter plainly when it recognized that India is “the most surprising democracy there has ever been: surprising in its scale, in its persistence among a huge and, for most of its existence, still exceedingly poor population, and in its tensile strength in the face of fierce centrifugal pressures and high levels of violence, corruption, and human oppression throughout most of its existence.” But such observations, as the tenor of this passage confirms, have been invitations to comprehend how democracy has been domesticated in a strange land. The absence of secularization, the low levels of literacy, the lack of a liberal tradition, and so forth have invited assessment of how democracy works in different settings. Such an assessment is far from irrelevant, but it is concerned with the working of Indian democracy rather than the decision to be democratic. Simply put, one cannot help but notice how little has been said about the founding approach toward democratization. The endurance of self- government in India may have encouraged much work within the disciplines of history and political science, but it has failed to inspire interest in how all of this initially came to pass. There is, it would seem, an understanding that even though the founders embraced democracy with intent, the choice “was unwitting in the sense that the elite who introduced it was itself surprisingly insouciant about the potential implications of its actions.”

“A recent meditation on global democracy put the matter plainly when it recognized that India is “the most surprising democracy there has ever been…”

This was hardly the case. As Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, a frequent and crucial voice in the Assembly, put it in his final address before the body, “The principle of adult suffrage was adopted in no lighthearted mood but with the full realizations of its implications.” One member portrayed the risks of blind legal transplantation in vivid terms: “ There is said to be a tribe of monkeys in Africa which copy faithfully the houses of men and then live on the outside of them instead of inside. The transplantation of political institutions is not free from this danger of copying the obvious and leaving out the essential.” In a speech in the Bombay Legislature in 1939, B. R. Ambedkar had similarly cautioned against constitutional arrangements that copied the West without sensitivity to India’s conditions: 

Jeremy Bentham must be known to every lawyer, if not to the outside world. Jeremy Bentham was a great legislator; he was a man who indulged in formularies; he was a man who indulged in symmetrical classification of things; he wanted to reform the English law on the basis of pure rationalism. The South American colonies thought that a man who believed in nothing but applying reason and who believed in doing things a priori was a proper person who would be asked to frame a constitution for themselves. They sent emissaries with briefs, I believe, marked, as they usually are for counsel, to draft the constitution. There were innumerable colonies in South Amer i ca, all spilt out of the old Spanish empire. Jeremy Bentham jumped at the opportunity of drafting constitutions for these new countries in South America. He took great pains and framed the most elaborate documents. I see the Prime Minister laughing because he knows the facts. And, sir, they were shipped all these documents, constitutional documents framed by Jeremy Bentham, were shipped over to South America, for the protection of the life and liberty of the people and for the intonement, if I may say so, of the democratic principle. When they went there, they were tried by the South American people for a few years. And afterward every constitution that was framed by Jeremy Bentham broke to pieces, and they did not know what to do with the surplus copies that had arrived; and all the South American people decided that they should be burnt publicly.

The answer to the Indian problem could not be found in thoughtless duplication. The challenge of postcolonial constitutionalism was to attend to both the meaning and the impact of Western ideas and the reality of local traditions and circumstances. India’s founding moment called for a schema that could meet the challenges of constituting democracy in an inhospitable environment.


About the author: Madhav Khosla explores the means India’s founders used to foster a democratic ethos. They knew the people would need to learn ways of citizenship, but the path to education did not lie in rule by a superior class of men, as the British insisted. Rather, it rested on the creation of a self-sustaining politics. The makers of the Indian Constitution instituted universal suffrage amid poverty, illiteracy, social heterogeneity, and centuries of tradition. They crafted a constitutional system that could respond to the problem of democratization under the most inhospitable conditions. On January 26, 1950, the Indian Constitution the longest in the world came into effect.

You can read more about the book here: https://amzn.to/2R5S961

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