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The wonder that is India’s democracy

  • Published at 04:58 pm April 26th, 2019
The biggest democratic exercise in the world
The biggest democratic exercise in the world / REUTERS

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

As India goes to the third phase of its general elections this coming week, it behooves to wonder how ordinary, and yet extraordinary that is.

India’s democracy is a paradox that has always fascinated me. Since its establishment in 1947, barring the brief 21 month interregnum of Emergency in the mid-70s, India has continued as a noisy, vibrant, pluralist, multi-party democracy all this time. 

As a young graduate student attending seminars in international affairs, I knew from all the evidence around me that while post-colonial Third World countries start out as democracies, within a few years, they transition into dictatorships in practice, while still retaining the title of “republic” in their names. Put it another way, sustainable democracies are incongruent with populations that are poor and undereducated. That axiom in political science has mostly held true from the beginnings of nation states to this day.

Except the anomaly that is India, which is in the middle of its national elections -- the biggest exercise in pluralist electoral democracy in mankind’s history. One has to marvel at this anomaly, which is often taken for granted in the scheme of things. The wonder of India’s democracy is doubly eye-catching considering that its two Muslim-majority neighbours to the, respectively, east and west, came out of the same womb of the British Raj and have had very little to show for in terms of democratic continuity.

What gives?

The philosophical explanations I will leave to professional political scientists. From a hard-nosed empirical standpoint, the key to India’s democratic paradox straddles three streams of reality. 

Firstly, there is the incredible diversity of India’s population, where scores of major languages, dozens of religions, and hundreds of ethnicities demand allegiance in an overlapping manner, bringing into focus the inherent check of cross-cutting cleavages against permanent governing majorities.  

It is hard to cobble together a long-lasting majority when individuals have loyalties to more than one strong attribute in their background. Coincidentally, the Sangh Parivar of Mr Modi has been somewhat successful in its efforts -- across large parts of the Hindi belt -- to subsume ethnic, linguistic, and caste identities into the religious one, thus undermining the foundations of the cross cutting cleavage argument to some extent.

Secondly, India’s federal constitutional structure, an inheritance from the 1935 Government of India Act of the Raj era, has been a tremendous asset in keepings its democracy on track. Concentrated power, whether in a person or a government, is a dangerous omen for sustaining democracies; when such power is diffused and such diffusion set in stone in constitutions, it become marginally difficult for would be dictators to follow their instincts. 

Unitary post-colonial states -- Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Syria come to mind immediately --transition from new democracies to one-party dictatorships very quickly within a few years of independence. 

Even when Congress (I) was ruling the roost in Delhi and at most state levels in the first three decades of India’s independence, the built-in constitutional check of federalism was a significant bar to centralized authoritarianism. 

Thirdly, there is the amazing strength of India’s two premier institutions, the judiciary and the election commission (ECI). Time and again, India’s superior judiciary has held its own as a co-equal branch of government, ruling against ministers and prime ministers and police chiefs, sending popular leaders to jail for breaking the law, and being fiercely protective of the independence of India’s courts. 

Compare that to its neighbouring countries where ruling party cadres have stormed courts or intelligence agencies have bundled off recalcitrant chief justices to exile and then shut down websites that reported the chutzpah.  

Similarly, the ECI has not been hesitant to fine sitting prime ministers, shut down media content from ruling parties for violating rules, and impose and enforce strict sanctions on vigilante groups affiliated with the government of the day. 

In the sense of such sterile professionalism, the Indian judiciary and election authorities have imbibed the finest traditions of fairness, fair play, independence, and rectitude associated with the traditional public services of the British Empire. Despite starting out with the same set of refined institutional values that were inherited from the hundred-plus years of English governance, why did the judiciaries and election bureaucracies of Pakistan and Bangladesh diverge sharply away while the Indian ones stayed faithful to the legacy of professionalism and fair play? It is a question that must be left to another day.

But as India relishes its democratic moment in the sun, there are ominous signs too. The headwinds of personality cult, majoritarian brutishness, and judges and civil servants too willing to please the executive are not stopped by international boundaries … and there are occasionally troubling signs in India too. 

At the same time I have faith in the key institutions of India -- honed over seven decades of faithful practice of professionalism and independence -- to withstand these, hopefully, temporary flashes of scattered trouble. Nonetheless, there is no strength within the sinews of even the hardiest institutions that will long withstand the collapse of vigilance by the people. 

If it is true that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, India’s 2019 national elections are more than a mere exercise in selecting leaders; indeed it is a referendum on India’s democracy itself. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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