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  • India: Running the World’s Biggest Elections
  • M.S. Gill (bio)

We Indians like to believe that we are the largest and the greatest democracy in the world. I have often felt uneasy about assertions such as this one. It carries a more than healthy dose of self-love, something from which all contemporary nation-states suffer. At any rate, I am not too sure if being the largest, as a result of an unacceptably high birth rate, is exactly a virtue. The fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence is too significant an occasion to be used for such self-congratulation, and my readers are likely too discerning to be diverted by clichés about India and its democracy.

Let me invite you to reflect about the first half-century of democratic endeavor in India. Is there really something unique about this experiment? Is there any reason why anyone who is not an Indian should take an interest in the fate of this unusual venture?

Let me explain what I mean by the words “unusual venture.” If one goes by the textbook models, India should not have been a democracy at all. Theorists of democracy since the time of Alexis de Tocqueville have maintained that democratic governance suits a society of equals. Theorists of comparative democracy such as Seymour Martin Lipset have also held that a minimum level of economic prosperity and development is a precondition to the success of democracy. India was, and still is, one of the [End Page 164] poorest countries in the world. In addition to the already formidable difficulties that this poses for the maintenance of democracy, there is the fact of India’s extraordinary cultural plurality. Whether you look at it in terms of religious communities, ethnic groups, or linguistic cultures, India presents a mind-boggling range of diversities. It was widely believed that such a plural society could never survive without formal, constitutionally guaranteed power-sharing arrangements among communities. India had virtually no such arrangements. To make matters worse, it had to live with the painful legacy of the intercommunal bloodbath that followed the partition of 1947.

I doubt if Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues consulted any political theorist about the viability of democracy in India in 1947. For them, democracy was an article of faith. If they had consulted one, I doubt if anyone would have given democracy much of a chance In India.

Fifty years have passed, and Indian democracy has not collapsed, though it has faced serious challenges. There were moments when observers doubted that it would survive. Yet it overcame every obstacle—not fully, or to everyone’s satisfaction, but substantially enough for its democratic record to be taken seriously. Substantially enough for it to be something of an exception among the various experiments to create democracy in postcolonial societies. Substantially enough for the various parties of the extreme left, who had earlier condemned Indian democracy as a bourgeois sham, to give up violence and enter the peaceful arena of democratic elections. Today, the left runs major state governments in the East and the South of India, and runs them reasonably well. To use the criterion employed by many students of comparative politics, in India democracy has come to be the “only game in town.” No wonder, then, that when a nationwide survey offered voters the choice of a government “without elections, parties, or legislatures,” as many as 86 percent of those who responded rejected this option.

A Grand Civic Festival

It is almost impossible to do an adequate job of conveying what democracy has meant, and done, to ordinary Indians. Nor can I paint properly the image of the modern-day festival that elections have become in India. Those who really want to grasp these things will have to come to India and see for themselves. Yet I can relate some of the facts about Indian elections.

Let me begin with the grand scale itself. India currently has an electorate of 600 million people, who regularly elect about five thousand representatives to the National Parliament and the state legislatures. Elections to these have been held at regular intervals since 1952. Holding a general election involves establishing no fewer than...

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