United and democratic after 61 years! How?

No one gave us a chance. No one thought we will preserve democracy all these 61 years, barring a 2-year aberration during the emergency years. Statistically, India’s democracy is a major outlier. Given its low levels of income and literacy, and its high levels of social conflict, India was “predicted as [a] dictatorship during the entire period” of a study conducted recently on analyzing the relationship between democracy and development in 135 countries. Statistically countries go through dictatorship and authoritarian regimes through their poverty eras, before becoming democratic, and it was found that “the odds against democracy in India were extremely high”. The forces that divide India are many, caste, religion, language, class, to name a few — with gender a uniform discriminative axis across each divisive force. Enough has been written about these divisive elements. What are the forces that keep India together? What are these elements that have helped us transcend or contain the cleaving forces of caste and culture?

In the general elections of 2004, 400 million voters exercised their right. Back in 1952, in the first general elections 46% of India turned out to vote in what was world-wide termed as the “biggest gamble in history”. Over the years this has increased and since the late 1960s, three in five eligible Indians have voted come election day. The corresponding percentages in local assembly elections have been even higher. India is probably the only democracy where the voter turn out of the marginalized classes are higher than that of the privileged groups. So, is the right to choose, freely and fairly, a uniting factor for all Indians? You only have to take a gentle look behind this process, and the picture is less than rosy. Most political parties are family firms. Most politicians are corrupt, and many come from a criminal background. Many institutions central to the functioning of a democracy, including a justiciable code of laws and their fair enforcement, have declined precipitously since their days of inception. The percentage of truly independent minded civil-servants has declined, as has the percentage of completely fair-minded judges.

Typically most nationalist movements (in the western world and otherwise) have been glued by a common language or a common religion. By contrast, the Indian nation does not privilege a single language or faith. There are sufficient examples to see the success of minorities in India through the system. It may not be far fetched to say that the unity of the Indian nation and pluralism of language and religion are inseparable. Yet, once again, the contradictions are not hard to see. From the original Jan Sangh slogans of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustani“, to Delhi in 1984, to Godhra and Gujarat of 2002, the minorities have suffered grievous loss of life and property. And in further keeping with the contradictions, for the most part, the minorities appear to retain faith in the democratic and secular ideals of the Indian constitution.

Was the fact that English survived as a language in India a uniting factor? It is easily arguable that large parts of India dont speak or understand English. Yet, it was English that was chosen as the language of governance at various levels, and is easily the language of the pan-Indian elite. The percentage of folks bound by English is not trivial, and as the historian Sarvepalli Gopal writes, “the knowledge of English is the passport for employment at higher levels in all fields”. Javed Akhtar, a noted Hindi and Urdu poet once remarked with great insight — “Apart from all the geographical states, there is one more state in this country, and that is Hindi cinema”. Bollywood has undoubtedly been an enormous contributer to the national unity as well.

The question then to ask is, is India a proper or a sham democracy? Can electoral rights, pluralism of language and religion, a foreign language (English), and Bollywood keep India together? Building democracy in a poor society was always going to be hard. Nurturing and rearing secularism in a just-divided country was even harder. And in these 61 years we have come a long way in fulfilling these dreams. There are many holes that need to be plugged. Holes so large, that they threaten to flood the boat. And yet, India stands afloat today, mostly proud.

Today, outside of the political and economic sphere of India, there are many discussing the true meaning of individual freedoms. Many who are pointing out the chinks in our armour. For a liberal democracy, India treats individual freedoms of its citizens with great disdain. But a new generation of young India is discussing this. In small groups, in small pockets, and making little changes.

For those who wish to see it, the pattern is obvious. A hundred years ago, the idea of political freedom in India was a matter of debate in the parlors of the educated elite. In small groups, in small pockets, and making little changes.

Happy 61!