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  • India Defies the OddsWhy Democracy Survives
  • Ashutosh Varshney (bio)

India has long baffled theorists of democracy. Democratic theory holds that poverty, widespread illiteracy, and a deeply hierarchical social structure are inhospitable conditions for the functioning of democracy. 1 Yet except for 18 months in 1975–77, India has maintained its democratic institutions ever since it became independent of Britain in 1947. Over those five decades, there have been 12 parliamentary elections and many more state assembly elections. Peaceful transfers of power between rival political parties have occurred seven times at the central (i.e., federal) level. Since 1967, the party that ruled in New Delhi has not ruled in nearly half of the states. Since 1977, moreover, incumbent governments have been repeatedly defeated in elections. The press has remained vigorous, free, and unafraid to challenge the government, as even a cursory sampling of morning newspapers will show. The judiciary, despite periodic pressure from the federal executive branch, maintains institutional autonomy. Election turnout keeps rising, exceeding the levels typical in several advanced Western democracies. Having started at 45.7 percent in the first general elections (held in 1952), turnout now often rises above 60 percent.

Predictions of an imminent collapse of India’s democracy have continued since the 1960s. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democracy in June 1975 and declared a state of emergency, it seemed that India was finally starting down the path that most of the world’s poorer democracies had already traveled. Yet democracy returned 18 months later, and emergency rule proved to be a conjunctural aberration rather than an emerging structural trend.

To be sure, danger signs remain. When unpopular ruling parties are thrown out, hope that the new incumbents will govern wisely and well [End Page 36] too often gives way quickly to anguish, marked by troubling questions. How long can democracy survive if public trust in India’s political leaders continues to decline? How long will short-term benefits—rather than long-term insight—determine the behavior of politicians? Scholars speak of India’s democracy as ungovernable, and clearly its health is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. 2

But one should not expect a textbook model to work if there has been a serious rise in political participation and a near-breakdown of the caste hierarchy that long acted as the glue of the social order. Indeed, rising participation by once-marginal groups such as the “lower” castes is, if anything, a sign of how much the democratic process has succeeded. Rising political participation, its desirability on grounds of political inclusion notwithstanding, nearly always comes at the cost of disorder. 3 Therefore, the yardsticks for judging India’s democratic health today should not be derived from the glory days of the 1950s. “Lower” castes, tribes, minorities, women, and citizens’ groups are all exercising their democratic rights to a degree that was unheard of in the 1950s and 1960s. That India still practices democracy is in and of itself unique, and theoretically counterintuitive.

The closest parallel cases among developing countries in terms of democratic longevity seem to be those of Venezuela since 1958 and of Costa Rica since 1948. Both, however, are many times richer than India, and therefore less anomalous in the view of democratic theory. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that no less an authority than Robert A. Dahl cites as a leading contemporary exception to democratic theory “India, where polyarchy was established when the population was overwhelmingly agricultural, illiterate, occupationally much less specialized than in a [developed] country, and highly traditional and rule-bound in behavior and beliefs.” 4 Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset come to the same conclusion in their multivolume survey of Third World democracies. 5

Finally, the historical novelty of Indian democracy was noted by Barrington Moore:

Economically [India] remains in the pre-industrial age. . . . But as a political species, it does belong to the modern world. At the time of Nehru’s death in 1964, political democracy had existed for seventeen years. If imperfect, the democracy was no mere sham. . . . Political democracy may seem strange both in an Asian setting and one without an industrial revolution. 6


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