While technically India may have become a constitutional democracy only from January 26, 1950, with the promulgation of Constitution, there was a broad agreement across the political spectrum at the time of Independence that it would tread this path. Even those who doubted conditions for the endurance of democracy in India or wrapped it in indigenous cultural metaphors soon reconciled to its constitutional frame spelled out in the next couple of years. Trans-Atlantic scholarly writings, however, persisted with their scepticism of the prospects of parliamentary democracy in India as was their wont prior to Independence. The review columns on W.H. Morris-Jones’ Parliament in India (1957), which provides a celebratory account of the first general elections (1951-52) and the rooting of parliamentary democracy in India, were invariably laced with amazement at the data marshalled in the book. The reasons for the prevailing scepticism for the prospects of democracy were understandable: A few countries that had embraced parliamentary democracy outside the transatlantic world in the immediate aftermath of World War II, such as Japan and Israel, had done so primarily for external reasons. India was rooting for it against all odds, but on its own terms.
The challenge before constitutional parliamentary democracy in India was not in proving sceptics wrong, but in the country’s capacity to make itself acceptable across its social divide. The most important of these challenges were the following: How to encompass India’s proverbial diversity within the fold of parliamentary democracy? How to extend equal citizenship in a social context deeply seeped in inequality while at the same time ensuring steady economic progress? How to make democracy speak to state structures seeped in the ethos of colonial authoritarianism? How to inform democracy with India’s rich past? How to heal the wounds inflicted by Partition and reimagine India afresh? Besides, there were few hitherto trodden pathways for India’s signature on the world stage that many longed for. The context called for rebuilding institutions from the rubble of colonial withdrawal and the travails of Partition.
One of the greatest achievements of independent India was to put together the architecture of its independent polity by piecing together the discourse of the national movement and the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly that elicited a broad consensus across its complex and diversified social layers. This architecture was constructed around ideas of equal citizenship and universal adult franchise, a modicum of autonomy to Adivasi habitats, periodic elections, parliamentary democracy and federal distribution of powers, the executive being responsive to the popularly elected House of the legislature at each level, and an independent but unified judiciary. The President elected by both Houses of Parliament and State Assemblies represented the state. Governors appointed by the federal government and the Upper House of Parliament representing the States were to be the gatekeepers of the unity of the federation. The Constitution upheld basic rights, including minority rights and preferential measures to disadvantaged groups. The state was directed to fulfil a set of positive obligations. An independent Election Commission ensured free and fair elections. And the judiciary was entrusted with arbitration over competing federal claims.
This grand institutional architecture has been shored up through many political and judicial initiatives. These include the removal of hurdles to reservations for the backward classes in education and public employment, the reorganisation and expansion of federal units, curbs on invocation of national emergency, decentralisation of power to local bodies, and the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act. Some States initiated credible measures on land reforms.
While politically fragmented national and State legislatures invoked fear initially, India has been successful in forging stable and effective coalition governments, in spite of a plethora of political parties. An articulate political opposition to the ruling dispensation emerged at all levels of the polity, although it remained fragmented. India also made its transition from a highly state-centric economy to a liberalised order without much ado, while launching new initiatives with regard to social safety nets.
Some measures, much drummed up at the time of their enactment, such as the anti-defection law, have not kept their promise. Certain initiatives that began well, such as the Departmentally Related Standing Committees, have largely turned out to be tokenisms. A few others such as the National Commission for Minorities, the Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Women, and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, with their State counterparts, have not explored their full potential. Some of the failures have been ensuring adequate and effective representation to women and minorities in Parliament and State legislatures, curbing electoral malpractices, placing Centre-State relations on an even keel, judicial oversight over the executive, and the inability of the national and State legislatures to hold the executive accountable and assert their institutional autonomy from political parties.
Flaws and failures
Some of the glaring shortcomings of India’s democracy, however, lie elsewhere, in binding the polity into a common bond. It is yet to grapple with its distinctive pluralism and make place for it in envisaging its prospective future. Incidentally, pluralism in India is not merely of doctrines and beliefs but also of languages and ways of life that are often overladen with unequal access to resources, opportunities and freedoms.
A second concern is the social and economic divide and the kind of resources and powers that either side commands, particularly at the extremes of this divide. While we may play jugglery on who is below or above the poverty line, India is yet to squarely face the relative precarity of social life at one extreme and the splurge of resources at the other. Worse still, this divide is only growing rapidly. There are all kinds of schemes now paraded as social safety nets against this precarity. But their impact has been largely on ensuring survival and not a quantum jump in the quality of life.
A third concern is the deplorable state of public accountability and oversight. Public corruption is only one of its manifestations. The failure to engage with this concern has largely turned Parliament and most State legislatures into registries for decisions made elsewhere and chambers for political catharsis. Given the weakening of the frame of law, the court often becomes a bystander with its hands tied. Lack of accountability is particularly glaring in domains which Indian democracy embraced as its special concerns under the Directive Principles of State Policy. Partisan interests that have routinely evaded the law – rural strongmen, urban kingpins, caste and community heavy-weights, religious entrepreneurs and shady corporates – have often thrived in Indian polity, sometimes finding a safe berth in state institutions.
A fourth concern is the way India is groping with its past. A large number of modern Indian thinkers drew attention to its past and strove to inform nationalism with it. In the euphoria of early days of Independence there was not much attention paid to explore its complexity. Increasingly, actors deploy the past to score brownie points over their adversaries instead of seriously engaging with it to keep faith in our present and look ahead.
A few countries that had embraced parliamentary democracy outside the trans-Atlantic world in the aftermath of World War II had done so mainly for external reasons. India was rooting for it against all odds, but on its own terms.
Valerian Rodrigues was Professor at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University