Democracy in practice

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A tribute to Indian democracy capturing the pain and the struggle, the humiliations and the glories

INDIA AFTER GANDHI — The History of the World’s Largest Democracy: Ramachandra Guha; Pan Macmillan, Picador India, 5A/12, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.

In 1977 after a spell of Emergency for two years Indira Gandhi had, to the surprise of many, including her influential son Sanjay Gandhi, dissolved the Parliament and ordered fresh elections. There was much speculation about the reasons for this momentous decision, which as it turned out, resurrected Indian democracy from the brink of doom. Several reasons have been attributed to the decision to revoke the Emergency, but it is difficult to be certain till Ms. Gandhi’s private papers are available for scrutiny. Whether she was lulled into a sense of safety by intelligence reports or was stung by the comments of those foreign observers impossible to dismiss as enemies of India remain in the realm of speculation. However, that the election was ordered and Ms. Gandhi and her party were defeated was essentially due to the strength of democratic ethos in society, to the making of which her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his generation had handsomely contributed.

Success story

The Emergency, though was the gravest, was not the only crisis that Indian democracy had to face. Linguistic conflicts, regional secessionist movements, communal tensions and riots and political violence had often made its existence rather precarious. On many an occasion, it so seemed that the existence of India as a nation was itself in danger. It not only survived all of them but also emerged from them much stronger, reinforcing in the process its commitment to democratic ideals. “The sapling (of democracy),” says Ramachandra Guha in the book under review, “was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it to adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.” The history of the world’s largest democracy which Guha chronicles in this remarkably lucid and extensively researched account, (on private papers, newspapers and secondary sources), admirably captures the agony and ecstasy of the democratic practice in independent India.

Guha is quite obviously an admirer of the achievements Indian democracy has attained in a largely hostile environment, vitiated by religious superstitions, caste prejudices and acute economic disparities. He claims that the “real success story of modern India lies not in the domain of economics but in that of politics.” The low levels of income and literacy, and high levels of social conflict have often led to the prediction that India might any day succumb to dictatorship. That India has managed to prove these predictions wrong and remained a democracy for 60 long years have surprised many political observers, particularly because democracy became a casualty in the neighbouring countries. How it managed to do that, both through the contribution of individuals and institutions, is the theme of this pioneering study which is by far the most comprehensive work on the contemporary history of India.


The first task that Indian democracy had to face was to establish and internalise what Sunil Khilnani has described as the idea of India. It was initially attempted through the adoption of a democratic constitution, integration of princely states and the linguistic reorganisation of states. In the conditions obtaining in India in the wake of Independence all the three were beset with considerable difficulties. The Constitution in which many heard the “music of an English band” rather than the “music of veena” laid down the principles and practices of a democratic state and society. The integration of princely states, which Vallabhai Patel accomplished with the assistance of V.P.Menon, was indeed a landmark in the political unification of the country. It is often overlooked that it initiated the process of the abolition of the feudal order. At the same time the linguistic reorganisation helped to underline the cultural diversity, which underlay the unity of the nation. The basic structure of the polity that evolved stood the test of time, withstanding the pressures, be they from the Northeast or the South or Kashmir.

The democratic practice in India is a highly contested terrain. Even during the anti-colonial struggle different political formations with widely different ideological persuasions and programmatic approaches were in existence. Yet, after Independence the Indian National Congress held the sway for quite some time under the leadership of Nehru. Soon after coalition governments came into existence which Guha contends is a “manifestation of the widening and deepening of democracy” as different regions and groups acquired a greater stake in the system.


A result of the decline of the Congress party was the rise of the Hindu communal forces to political prominence, which led to the Bharatiya Janata Party wielding power at the Centre. Rising to power at the crest of popularity generated by the mobilisation of religious sentiments around the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, the BJP rule made serious inroads into the democratic and secular fabric of the society. The governments under its control, be it at the Centre or in the states, promoted the communal cause. Moreover, its cadres actively participated in violence against minorities and its leaders expounded the virtues of religious state in the name of cultural nationalism and positive secularism. These tendencies have led many to recognise the fascist character of the BJP. Guha, however, differs. To him, “to call BJP ‘fascist’ is to diminish the severity and seriousness of the murderous crimes committed by the original fascists in Italy and see the party (BJP) as fascist would be both to overestimate its powers and to underestimate the democratic traditions of the Indian people.” Whether such a reading of the character of BJP is tenable after the Gujarat carnage of 2002 is doubtful.

Guha further suggests that the threat of fascism has passed presumably because the BJP has lost the election of 2004. Such an analysis and conclusion tend to overlook the inherent character of Hindutva, the strength of which is not limited to its political work, but more in their influence in social and cultural domains. The defeat in the election does not mean the defeat of the fascist ideology of Hindutva, which continues to be active and influential in the cultural and social domains, even if its political arm is in disarray.

Guha has admirably captured the spirit of the struggling nation. However, at the end a doubt lingers in the mind: whether the author has overstated his case about the strength of Indian democracy, underplaying in the process some of its glaring weaknesses. A fairly large section of the population is deprived of the benefits of democracy, particularly their right to a share of the wealth of the nation. That they remain in the margins of the democratic process can hardly be wished away.



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