what democracy does, disappears. At this level, it also becomes difficult to sustain a “universal checklist” definition: democracy cannot be defined without reference to the historically specific dreams and ideals that were articulated through the label. This brings us back to the four goals implicit in the Indian model with reference to which the achievements and failures of democratic polity can be discussed.
The very achievement and sustenance of procedural democracy partly realises the first goal of political democracy. A democracy provides dignity and liberty simply by being there. In the Indian model, democracy was also the key instrument, the necessary condition, for the realization of all its other goals. In that sense... Indian polity has achieved something worth defending. It has also met, at least until now in most parts of the territories that fall within its boundaries, the minimal substantive expectations of any regime, democratic or otherwise: protecting its own form and protecting its citizens from complete anarchy. The fact that India has kept at bay even the remote possibility of a military takeover; that it has successfully defended (at times through brutal and undemocratic means in the states of Nagaland and Mizoram in the north-east) the territorial borders it inherited; and that most of its citizens have been spared the experience of complete anarchy, is unlikely to enthuse a radical democrat. But it is useful to remember that democratic regimes usually collapse not because they fail to realise the higher ideals associated with democracy, but because they cannot be relied upon to meet the bare minimum expectations.
The achievements of democracy as a set of institutions or as a regime do not, of course, satisfy the deeper ethical impulse associated with the idea of democracy, says the author. As a political ideal, democracy promises a community of equals, where ordinary citizens enjoy real liberty and are governed by none except themselves. The nationalist movement in India had translated this ideal as the goal of swaraj, of self-rule, in a deeper sense. Yadav points out that Indian democracy has not come anywhere close to meeting this ideal. Perhaps no democracy has, but this constitutes a poor consolation to those who accepted the ideal for its ethical appeal. Yadav writes:
Ever since the famous “tryst with destiny” speech given at midnight, 14 August 1947, the promise of a community of equals has been a false one. What has come about as a result of the working of democracy is neither a community nor equality. The political community, or rather politicised social communities, it brings into existence is no community, for its shared life is shallow, if not perverse. The liberty it offers, at least formally, is distributed in extremely unequal measure. The power it brings to the people as an abstraction is rarely, if ever, exercised by the real people. And there are still many people – full citizens of the Republic of India – who feel as powerless under this democracy as they did under British rule.
The performance of Indian democracy in achieving national integration has left much to be desired. But, as the examples of India’s neighbours show, we could have done worse. There are areas (Kashmir and the hill states in the north-east) and periods (Indira Gandhi’s second regime, for example) that constitute exceptions, but on balance the Indian elite has stuck to the “salad bowl” rather than the
“melting pot” model of integration of diversities. That is to say, various communities and aspiring nationalities have not been forced to give up their identity as a precondition of joining the Indian enterprise.
They have been accepted as distinct and different ingredients in the Indian mix of multiculturalism. And, again on balance, it has worked: legitimate political articulation of social and regional diversities and the mediation of competing claims through mechanisms of political accommodation have achieved what consociational arrangements for power sharing among different social groups do in other societies.
There has been more than one instance of majoritarian excess (the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, to take two examples from recent history), but democratic politics seems to have evolved mechanisms of self-correction in this respect (as illustrated by the 1997 elections in the Punjab and the politics of Uttar Pradesh). In retrospect, effective political accommodation of
visible diversities looks like one of the outstanding achievements of Indian democracy in the last fifty years. By its very nature, however, this is an inherently fragile achievement, ever contingent on the skills of the political actors in working out the power-sharing arrangements or in allowing the mechanisms of self-correction to work themselves out. This is a lesson well worth remembering as India confronts the most organised challenge to the politics of diversity in the form of the BJP government at the centre.
The most serious challenge to the survival of diversity comes from forces that are less organised, less visible, and not even considered political in the ordinary sense: forces of cultural homogenisation, the monoculture of modernity, and the ideology of nation-state. While there is something to be said for the capacity of democratic politics to deal with the more obvious political challenges to diversity, it has proved a weak ally in the struggle against these deeper threats from within.
The promise of social revolution that the democratic invitation has always contained has been realised only in parts and in fragments. It is not that democratic politics has left society unaffected. In fact, these fifty years may be recorded in the history of Indian society as years of fundamental transformation triggered, above all, by the mechanism of competitive politics. At least in one respect, it did bring about something of a revolution: the role of ritual Hindu hierarchy as a predictor of secular power has diminished dramatically over the last fifty years. While this is a fundamental change, it does not in itself guarantee equality. Unsurprisingly, the functioning of democratic politics has contributed more to a vigorous circulation of the elite and to an expansion of the circle itself than to the establishment of social equality.
Its contribution to social equality is mainly by way of the politicisation of castes and communities, which then struggle in the secular domain for equality of self-respect. Since the gender divide does not lend itself to easy aggregation along party political lines, competitive politics has failed to bring about the kind of change in this aspect that it has on caste inequality. The representation of women in parliament and the state assemblies has stagnated at the abysmally low levels of 8 and 4 percent, respectively, over the last fifty years. The national movement may not have had a greater proportion of women’s participation, but it ensured that women had a stronger voice in public life. If women’s issues are discussed much more in the political arena than their presence in legislatures or their voice in political parties would warrant, the principal reason is the politics of ideas to which the growing women’s movement has contributed a great deal.
Consequently, India has had fairly “progressive” legislation on gender justice, including the provision for reservation of one-third of the seats for women in the election of local democratic bodies. The resolute opposition to a similar bill for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies shows the lack of political will that underlies the symbolic progressivism on women’s issues.
The single biggest failure of democratic politics lies in the nonfulfilment of the promise of material well-being. Far from ensuring a life of equal and reasonable comfort for everyone, it has not succeeded even in providing the minimum needs of the people, or in removing the worst indignities or the ugliest disparities in the material conditions of life experienced by its citizens. It is true that the conditions of life for most of the people have not deteriorated substantially, that India has achieved some reduction in the proportion of the poor in its population, and that the Indian economy is not caught in an possible spiral of inflation or in a debt trap. That is perhaps an achievement, at least in comparative perspective. It is also true that the majority of the population feels that its economic condition has improved in the recent past and that an overwhelming majority of people think that their children have better opportunities in life than they did. But there is a significant minority – mainly artisan communities and Scheduled Tribes – that disagrees and has experienced an overall deterioration in quality of life.
For others, too, there has been a visible decline in some of the crucial resources such as the availability of public health and the quality of public education. Democratic politics only provides a potential formal mechanism for conversion of the majority of the poor into a political majority that can then take charge of state power to redistribute material resources and to augment them in such a way as to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged. The functioning of democracy in itself does nothing to ensure that the mechanism is actually used to this end.
The other condition, that of the availability of a political agency that can transform the potential majority into a political majority by winning their political trust, has proved to be highly contingent, explains Yadav. He writes, "The Indian model expected politics to provide three crucial elements of what was then called economic development: politics was to provide the blueprint for economic development; it was to confer the political will to implement the design in the face of structures of economic interests; and it was to create popular support for egalitarian politics. In practice, it succeeded in providing only the third component – and that only in part."
The book states that the recent phase of globalisation and liberalisation denotes a definitive retreat from what remained of the politics of egalitarianism. Not only is there no effective political will to do something, there is very little by way of a coherent intellectual design as to what needs to be done in the first place. "This combination of political amnesia and cognitive paralysis poses the most important challenge to the ethical impulse underlying the Indian enterprise today," he adds.
(The following excerpts have been published with permission from Permanent Black.)