- India’s Improbable Success
A decade ago, the eminent Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas called Indian democracy "a secular miracle of the modern world and a model for other developing countries," but went on to worry that the quality of this democracy was "poor." Six decades after independence, Indian democracy is clearly a success, but just as clearly also still a work in progress. India has long defied the proposition—held with near-canonical certitude by those who make their living studying comparative politics—that democratic consolidation simply does not happen in countries where annual per-capita income is less than US$1,000 a year (according to India's central bank, in 2006 to 2007 the annual per-capita income in the country was only $797).
India has long been host to free and fair elections leading to peaceful changeovers of power; has a vibrant, spirited press and independent judiciary; has spawned political parties all over the ideological spectrum; and has been defended by a military establishment that has remained firmly under civilian control. Apart from a 21-month interlude of authoritarian "emergency" rule from 1975 to 1977 under a civilian prime minister, India has never formally suspended democratic procedures.
Alongside these attributes of a thriving democracy, however, are other and less salubrious features. The Indian state has frequently, especially in the last two decades, failed to serve as a neutral arbiter of [End Page 170] Hindu-Muslim discord. On one occasion in 2002, it became a blatantly partisan actor, allowing Hindu zealots to slaughter innocent Muslims in the western state of Gujarat. The failure to uphold and protect minority rights is not the only shortcoming of India's democracy. A host of other ills plague the nation. Despite nearly sixty years of formal commitment to social equality and justice, India's lower castes still face routine discrimination and sometimes vicious prejudice in both public and private institutions. Honest and upright public figures are dismayingly rare (vast numbers of elected officials have faced criminal indictments); bureaucratic procedures are often rigid and slow; and many government programs are ineffective.
Does this legion of woes mean that India's democracy, however successful it may look on the surface, is rotting from within and that all is lost? Two important, carefully crafted, cogently argued, and judiciously reasoned books suggest that the answer is no. Ramachandra Guha's massive narrative account of history since Mahatma Gandhi (d. 1949) is nothing short of magisterial. No other historical work since independence has even tried to tackle this mammoth subject. This is a work of monumental scholarship, lucid prose, and tempered judgments.
Guha's central argument is that India's nationalist leaders—in the face of stubborn colonialist opposition—managed to adopt certain key Western liberal principles of representative government from their British colonial masters as the British Raj waned. Many top Britons, most notable among them that irascible imperialist Winston Churchill, publicly questioned Indians' ability to fashion a viable polity, let alone nurture democratic and representative institutions. Yet despite the trauma of violent partition (one million killed, ten million displaced) amid which independence came in 1947, these same Indian leaders managed to build the liberal-democratic institutions that have formed the basis for Indian political life ever since. Guha thoroughly documents and engagingly recounts this tale, surely one of the most extraordinary in the entire history of human governance.
Within three years of independence, India's nationalist leaders had endowed their country with a basic law that to this day provides the framework for a robust parliamentary democracy. The Indian Constitution of 1950 guarantees the freedoms of religion and the press, and provides for a federal structure of governance, an independent judiciary, universal suffrage, and free and fair elections. Just two years after adopting this document, India embarked on the grand spectacle of a national election in which there were as many as 176 million eligible voters, the vast majority of whom were poor...