Why has democracy done well in India? 9 April 2014

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(Author’s photo: Jammu)

Why has democracy done well in India?     9 April 2014

One incredible thing about India is that, despite many social problems and political issues, it is a fully functioning democracy. Apart from Mrs Gandhi’s 21-month State of Emergency (1975-77), regular elections have been held. Indians of many persuasions have been elected to the Union parliament in New Delhi. Voter turnouts are usually about 65 per cent. Governments have come and gone—peacefully. This is a phenomenal achievement.

Nevertheless, India’s democracy is not perfect. In the recent parliament, one third of legislators had criminal records. They apparently used their greater financial largesse with voters to get elected. Similarly, politicians use (non-inclusive, sometimes divisive) vote banks to garner support. Traditionally, the Congress Party has wooed Muslim, Dalit (Untouchable) and Brahmin voters. Other parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal, seek to represent ‘backward castes’ (as against ‘forward’, or better-off, castes). Finally, rural voters seemingly take elections more seriously than urban voters. Generally poorer, they have more to gain by voting than relatively richer urbanites.

One interesting matter is why India has been able to successfully establish a democracy while most of its neighbours, particularly Pakistan, have struggled. One significant factor involves the leadership of the two main political parties that contested the anti-British freedom struggle: the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. Congress had many significant and capable politicians, leaders and influencers. These included Mohandas (‘Mahatma’) Gandhi (not always a Congress member, but always highly influential), Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the ‘Frontier Gandhi’), C. Rajgopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, and J. Kripalani. No one personality dominated, while power and influence were disbursed and change hands regularly via internal party elections.

Conversely, the Muslim League had two leading figures: Liaquat Ali Khan and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Of these, Jinnah was by far the more influential, charismatic and superior. Indeed, reflecting Indira Gandhi’s election slogan during the 1970s of ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’, Jinnah was the Muslim League and the Muslim League was Jinnah. This nominal Muslim was so powerful, capable and authoritative that, invariably, he was able to, and did, act autocratically and unilaterally. Jinnah’s word was essentially law to Muslim Leaguers. Consequently, power became concentrated in his hands, with opposing voices muted, suppressed or ignored. This developed an autocratic ethos that continues to heavily influence Pakistani politics: the top person, military or civilian, is all-important and all-powerful. He or she often acts dictatorially. While a lack of internal democracy in Pakistan’s military is totally understandable, most Pakistani political parties also lack this facility. It is a major factor that seriously impedes Pakistan’s democracy.

Similarly, democracy succeeded in India but struggled in Pakistan because India had many figures able to lead, while Pakistan essentially had two. This shortcoming became clear when Jinnah died in September 1948 and Liaquat was tragically assassinated in October 1951. Thereafter, ‘lesser’ Pakistani leaders struggled to establish their own political standing, to create national unity, and to institute democracy. No one politician had the flair or mandate to successfully lead. As a result, Pakistan’s Constitution only came into operation on 23 March 1956, six years after India’s. Two years later, martial law was imposed in Pakistan, since which Pakistanis have struggled to placate Pakistan’s assertive, often aggressive, military. Conversely, India was able to politically survive Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, while the major post-partition Congress figure, Jawaharlal Nehru, lived until 1964. This stability helped embed positive political principles in India, including the right to debate and dissent, democratic elections, and politicians’ superiority over the military. Even the overbearing Mrs Gandhi allowed elections to end her drastic Emergency, after which her party was resoundingly defeated, to the then delight of most Indians.

In my (Western) opinion and generalising, democracy has succeeded in India but struggled in Pakistan because of each nation’s majority religion. Hinduism, in which about 80 per cent of Indians participate, comprises an extremely broad and diverse set of ideas, beliefs, and practices. Indeed, this faith’s polytheistic and multi-facetted diversity make it hard to actually identify who or what is a Hindu. One aspect of Hinduism is its caste system which, if nothing else, ensures that there will be differences, diversity and divisions among people. Democracy thrives on such pluralism, and on the resolution of disparities—provided that people are reasonable, tolerant and accepting of election results. Indians have shown for a long time that they are so inclined.

Conversely, monotheistic Islam, as practised by 95 per cent of Pakistanis, tends to encourage people to be similar or the same. Islam’s five articles of faith identify who comprises a Muslim and that person’s obligations. He/she must proclaim that ‘there is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s Messenger’; pray five times a day; give charity; fast during Ramadan; and, undertake the Haj, if possible. Superficially, these articles compel people to do the same things, often concurrently—and usually peacefully. Seemingly, they encourage sameness and non-critical acceptance of one’s faith. Often, the Koran, Hadith or Sharia,or religious scholars, are used to resolve difficult issues—not political processes. One major, ongoing problem in Pakistan with this approach is which interpretation of Islam should predominate: Deobandi; Salafi; Barelvi; Wahabi; Sufi-inspired; Ahl-e-Hadith; Shia; Ismaili; etc.? Currently, some supposed Muslims are using violence and terrorism—the bullet not the ballot—to resolve this issue.

Overall, Indians have benefitted from leaders prepared to be accountable via elections. Pakistanis have inherited leaders used to command structures and issuing orders. Indian leaders generally have helped to entrench democracy; Pakistan’s, until recently, have not. Interestingly, in India’s current election, some Hindutva elements are seeking a mandate to impose narrow versions of ‘Hinduness’ and history on Indians, regardless of their religion. In a nation where diversity and reasonableness have been positive factors, this may work against the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, both in the elections and in the invariable, and difficult, post-election negotiations. Generally, Indians don’t respond positively to hardline positions.

Christopher Snedden
9 April 2014


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