Democracy in India

Hyderabad, Telangana: Y.S. Sharmila (YSR Congress), daughter of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the late YSR Reddy, on the campaign trail.

This year, India celebrates 70 years of independence — 70 years of democracy. The next 70 years, I hope, will see a blossoming of the nation. What I don’t expect to see is stasis. In the West, commentators are apt to think of democracy as an unchanging phenomenon. And yet, today, the world’s oldest democracies are in flux. From the rise of populism, to the rise of the far-right fringe, 2017 looks like it will be a turbulent year for Western democracy. And in the world’s largest democracy, India? In India, history shows that democracy is a journey, not a destination, something that Western democracies are perhaps beginning to experience. So what does India’s recent history have to say about the nature of democracy — both its own and others around the world?

Three years ago, Narendra Modi was elected in a landslide victory, defying pundits’ odds. His support from extreme elements within the Hindu nationalist party complex (BJP and RSS), and his leadership of Gujarat during some of the worst religious violence ever seen in India, seemed an unlikely winning formula in a country with such religious and ethnic diversity. Although Modi denies and was subsequently cleared of all charges, allegations of direct involvement by his party members continue, and thus far two senior BJP leaders have been found guilty. Yet, like Trump, he has emerged from these events relatively unscathed.

Trivandrum, Kerala: A group of ministers from the Kerala assembly mid-discussion during the campaign of Shashi Tharoor.

However, just 10 years ago, a very different combination of social constituencies were claiming the centre ground. The Congress Party was pushed to a historic victory on a wave of support that included lower-caste groups, poorer sections of the population and a plethora of social movement organisations fighting for basic needs in the language of human rights. During its 10 years in power, Congress implemented a range of social policies such as food security, employment guarantee, healthcare and education, which had a direct impact on reducing poverty.

But nowhere is the struggle inherent in democratic politics more evident than it is in India. The centre did not hold. Today, there are many reasons to worry that India is on a path towards becoming a hardline Hindu nationalist state. Under Modi’s leadership, the political rhetoric is shifting — while on the ground there is evidence of sustained radicalisation in school textbooks and educational appointees. And yet despite this, there is no clear opposition to the dominance of the Hindu right. Regional caste parties may hold the balance of power in states, but the BJP is undoubtedly the major national party.

Trivandrum, Kerala: The BJP’s lotus symbol, an unusual sight in southern Kerala, is seen at a local outreach programme in central Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital.

So why have thousands of voters turned their backs on a social agenda aimed at benefiting them? It is certainly true that Congress, mired in a series of corruption cases, was increasingly unable to defend itself under public scrutiny. But corruption is far from the whole story.

During my field research in the state of Gujarat during 2012 and 2013, I talked to many lower-caste men and women about why they voted for the BJP — which has been in continuous power in Gujarat since 1995. This group has been key, locally and nationally, in the BJP’s success. And yet their support for the party runs counter to what mainstream theory predicts, for it is clear that their life chances have not improved under BJP rule. I heard many complaints about the cost of living, the supply of water and electricity, police harassment of street vendors and growing inequality. Yet they still voted for the BJP. When challenged, the answer offered was simply that associating with the Congress party was anachronistic. To be modern was to advocate the aspirational values projected by the BJP (which it has done by employing the language of development). Traditional caste politics appealed less and less to these young men and women, who wanted to feel part of a modern, developing economy.

Hassan, Karnataka: In rural Karnataka, shoes are left outside as a candidate meets village elders and party members to canvas support.

It’s not always ‘the economy, stupid’. Emotion plays a crucial role in democracy, as many commentators, such as Pankaj Mishra, in his book, the Age of Anger recognise. As in the US election, in Gujarat we saw a disconnect between the reasons our interviewees gave for their ongoing support of the BJP and their material circumstances. After almost 20 years of BJP government, interviewees reported that there were few secure jobs to apply for, that they lacked the networks possessed by upper-middle class applicants, and that educational and training opportunities felt out of reach. Life did not seem to be getting any better — if anything, it was less secure than what their parents had experienced. But nonetheless, to vote for the BJP was to be in favour of development and economic advancement.

They were not merely irrational — and nor are they alone. Trump’s victory in the US and the support he mustered from white working-class men and women was not based on fact-checking his record on providing jobs or improving their material circumstances. If we are looking for the source of such support, we might focus on the emotional responses of people who feel let down and whose disappointments, rage and even trauma fester in the flux of the democratic process.

Rohtak, Haryana: A poster of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, chief minister of Haryana state from 2004–14, is seen from the window of his party’s campaign bus.

Under these conditions, the lure of authoritarianism is tempting. It provides certainty where lack of direction prevails, it empowers those who feel weak and victimised by creating enemy scapegoats, and the mere promise of a better future can resonate with our aspirations in a way that makes the separation of rhetoric and reality a nuance. But rather than see this as a blip, a wrinkle in the fabric, I think we need to recognise that authoritarianism can nestle within the broader contours of democracy, because democracy itself is constantly changing.

Over the past 70 years, despite the vast inequalities that predated the advent of democracy, Indian democracy has steadily deepened. Excepting one brief spell of Emergency Rule (1975–77), India has largely escaped the experiences of authoritarian rule that has plagued countries even after they have gone down the democratic route. This outcome has rightly surprised many observers. Democracy in India survives — some might say it is in rude health — but it has done so only through trial and accommodation with a culture of inequality and unchecked power. These have left the country simultaneously weakened, and strengthened — something that the rest of the world may well be about to experience.

Mumbai, Maharashtra: Meera Sanyal, former CEO and chairperson of the Royal Bank of Scotland in India, campaigning on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket in Mumbai.

Dr Manali Desai is a University Lecturer in Sociology and Director of Studies at Newnham.

Last days of Manmohan series: the images on these pages were taken by Indian artist and photographer, Mahesh Shantaram during the 2014 election. He says: “I’m interested in the theatre of politics and the visual spectacle that it offers; it is a lens through which to view India itself. This project is both a personal, heartfelt response to the political atmosphere during the election and a continuation of my broader study of Indian contemporary society.”

This article first appeared in CAM — the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 80.

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