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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 52-66

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South Asia Faces the Future

New Dimensions of Indian Democracy

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph

Conventional wisdom has it that India is the world's largest democracy, but few have recognized that it is so against the odds. The Indian experience runs against the widely held view that rich societies are much more likely to be democratic than poor ones, and that societies with large minority populations are prone to ethnic cleansing and civil war. Democracy in India, a poor and notoriously diverse country, has succeeded for more than half the twentieth century and seems likely to succeed as well in the twenty-first. India's democracy has proved substantial as well as durable. Electoral participation has been higher than in the United States, elections have been free and fair, governments have alternated at the center and in the states, and free speech and association are constitutionally protected and widely practiced. But democracy is subject to challenge and change. This essay examines why and how democracy in India during the 1990s responded to a variety of challenges. These may be summarized under seven headings:

1) A more prominent role for federal states in India's political system. The states are making themselves heard and felt politically and economically more than they ever have in the half-century since India gained its independence from Britain.

2) The transformation of the party system. The era of dominance by the Indian National Congress has ended. Congress remains a major party, but it now must operate within a multiparty system that includes not only the nationally influential Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but a host of significant regional and state-based parties as well. [End Page 52]

3) Coalition government. Stable central governments based on parliamentary majorities have given way to coalition governments that must depend on constellations of regional parties. India has become in this regard like Italy or Israel, both places where small parties can make or break governments and thereby affect the whole nation.

4) A federal market economy. Economic liberalization has been marked by a decline in public investment and a rise in private investment, the displacement of the federal Planning Commission by the market, and the emergence of the states as critical actors in economic reform and growth. The result has contributed to a transformation of India's federal system.

5) The central government as regulator. Despite what the foregoing might suggest, India's central government is not fading away. The center is holding, but its role has changed. The center had acted as an intervenor. Now it acts as a regulator. In the economic realm, it monitors the initiatives of the several states. It tries (albeit mostly without success) to enforce fiscal discipline. In the political realm, the center acts--through regulatory institutions such as the Supreme Court, the presidency, and the Election Commission--to ensure fairness and accountability. Since the emergence of the first coalition government in 1989, this role as "policeman" or honest broker has grown, while the interventionist institutions, the cabinet and parliament, have waned in significance.

6) A social revolution. In most states, and to a significant extent at the center as well, there has been a net flow of power from the upper to the lower castes. Indian politics has experienced a sociopolitical revolution that, in varna terms, has meant a move from a Brahman (priests, intellectuals) toward a Shudra (toilers) raj.

7) Centrism has held against extremism. The imperatives of centrist politics have checked the momentum of Hindu fundamentalism. India's diverse and pluralist society, the rise of coalition politics, and the need to gain the support of the median voter have transformed the Hindu-nationalist BJP from an extremist to a centrist party.

1) The rise of the states. In recent years, the 28 states of India's federal system have played a more prominent role in India's public life. Not least has been their contribution to helping India live peacefully with difference. In a world where armed strife has...


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