Vinay Lal

[First published as “Can Democracy Survive?”, in India Today, 13 December 2006, pp. 32, 34.]

For a country with a very long past, many in India now seem to be resolutely focused, when they are not consumed by the demands of daily living, on the future. Indeed, one of the many reasons why the BJP and their allies may have lost the last general election in 2004 is that the advocates of Hindutva, in particular, have been obsessed with ideas about the gloriousness of the Indian and specifically Hindu past, though the obsessions of the young are doubtless very different. With a campaign revolving around the idea of “India Shining”, one might have thought that the BJP was poised to prevail. Certainly, if the persistent invocations of the “new India”, the roaring economy, and the entrepreneurial and aggressively capitalist spirit of India are any guide, at least the Indian middle classes have signified their assent to the idea that an economic rather than a political conception of democracy will drive the Indian future.

Democracies everywhere present a complex scenario of tensions between constraints and liberty, unfreedom and freedom, the imperatives of the modern national security state and the aspirations of a free citizenry, but perhaps nowhere more so than in India. The very fact that India has repeatedly been able to mount general elections, and on a scale nowhere else witnessed in history, is adduced as evidence of the strength of Indian democracy — an accomplishment that seems all the more remarkable given the precarious state of democracy in most of the world. Not all institutions of civil society are equally robust, but it is an indisputable fact that there are strong people’s and grassroots movements. The same Supreme Court that sentenced Mohammed Afzal to death, notwithstanding the failure of the state to produce decisive evidence against the condemned man, also acquitted other men for want of evidence. Similarly, if the press has often been a bulwark of support to élites, the vigilance of the English-language press during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 cannot be denied. There have been important legislative gains for ordinary people, including the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest People’s Land Rights Bill, the Right to Information Act, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, but it is also widely conceded that progressive legislation, for example on the practice of dowry, can coexist alongside a resolute determination to prevent its implementation. The law can obfuscate problems as much as it can help to relieve them, an outcome all but assured when the state has no substantive commitment to the idea of an open society and distributive equality.

In thinking about Indian democracy and its future prospects, commentators have lavished far too much attention on “politics” in the narrowest conception of the term. There is much speculation, for example, on whether India might move towards a two-party system or some variation of it, with the Congress and the left parties constituting one bloc and the other bloc being constituted by BJP and its allies. But this kind of scenario has little room for parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which together dominate politics in Uttar Pradesh, where efforts by the Congress to reinvent itself do not hold much promise of success. In the General Elections of 2004, the Left Front won 60 seats and came to hold the decisive swing vote. While so far the left has show little inclination to revolt, and West Bengal is rapidly retooling itself to become attractive to the corporate world and foreign investors, the possibility of genuine and irreconcilable differences developing between the Congress and the Left Front should never be minimized.

Consequently, in addressing the question of the future of Indian democracy, one is asked to think well beyond political parties, regionalism, the two party-system, and other like considerations. If there is still considerable hope for Indian democracy, it is because it still has several distinct sources of renewal. First, and foremost, there is the people’s wisdom. Time after time the illiterate electorates of India have shown better judgment than the educated, though whether the likes of Chandrababu Naidu, the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh who fancied himself a CEO and attempted to transform the state into a technological mecca even while the agricultural countryside was being roiled by suicides of farmers driven to desperation, ever learn a lesson is another matter. I am reminded of a conversation that transpired in 1927 between Gandhi and a visiting clergyman, Reverend Mott. When Mott asked Gandhi what gave him the cause for the greatest hope, Gandhi unhesitatingly referred to the people’s capacity for nonviolent resistance despite the gravest provocations. And when Mott queried Gandhi on what filled him with the greatest despair, Gandhi said: “The hardheatedness of the educated is a matter of constant concern and sorrow to me.”

The wisdom and resilience of ordinary people has been exemplified not only at the ballot box, but in grassroots movements and cultural practices of syncretism. Secondly, the Constitution of India remains, despite attempts to subvert its emancipatory provisions, a document and a vision that continues to hold out the promise of equality, justice, and opportunity. It has survived the wreckage of an authoritarian executive and will outlive the Supreme Court’s present disposition to allow massive land grabs in the name of progress and development. Thirdly, though Mohandas Gandhi’s assassins never seem to rest, the spectre of Gandhi remains to haunt, guide, and inspire Indians who are resistant to everything that passes for “normal politics” and have not entirely succumbed to the oppressions of modernity. As I have elsewhere written, Gandhi took great risks and was not in the least cowed down by history, the sanctity of traditions, or scriptural authority. Some six decades ago, Indians entered into a tryst with destiny. Now is the time to gamble everything on the unique experiment that constitutes Indian democracy.