Dangers to democracy

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Politics in India: Structure, Process and Policy, By Subrata K. Mitra, OUP, 2014, Pages: 406, Price: Rs.595.

Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy, By Simon Denyer, Bloomsbury, 2014, Pages: 440, Price: Rs. 599.

Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India, By Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, Princeton University Press, 2012, Pages: 335, Price: $29.95.

THE success of democracy in India has been a fascinating subject for scholars and journalists alike. Books written by them thus seek to unravel the paradox of the country’s appearance as a democracy despite the presence of so many factors that belie it. Most often, the question of the future of democracy and the authors’ responses to it loom large before the reader, whatever the approach adopted or the focus chosen by them to look beyond the headlines in order to discern missed trends and phenomena.

The kind of challenges India faced in the first two decades after Independence would have left any scholar extremely sceptical about democracy’s success, proof of which is India : The Most Dangerous Decades written by Selig S. Harrison in 1960. In it, Harrison warned: “Odds are almost wholly against the survival of freedom... the issue is, in fact, whether any Indian State can survive at all.” Yet Indian democracy survived, surprising and confounding its critics.

As the country is voting in yet another periodically held general election, the old doubts about Indian democracy have returned to haunt observers. Even as a regime change at the Centre appears a possibility—based on projections from public opinion polls —doubts persist about the likely threats to the basic features of the Constitution, the phenomenal rise in the influence of extra-constitutional power centres and the shrinking of space for opposition and dissent, which may spell doom for democracy. While India witnesses an unusual election campaign —marked by the brazen attempt of a political party to convert the campaign into a presidential contest by projecting one candidate as a prime ministerial aspirant while its rivals have not officially named contenders to the post—the future of parliamentary democracy appears to be at stake in practice, if not in theory.

If the voters tend to see the 2014 election as a presidential contest involving a few candidates—of whom only one is officially projected as the next Prime Minister by the sponsoring party—the results are bound to get distorted and the issues before the electorate blurred. It is not the first time that a party is projecting one leader as its prime ministerial candidate openly or impliedly. But such attempts in the past were always accompanied by a semblance of collective leadership and respect for institutions and democratic processes. Worryingly, these accompanying features are missing in the BJP’s projection of Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister. It is as if the voters are called upon to vote a political party to power on the strength of the perceptions about a projected leader and his promises, without his rivals getting sufficient opportunity to contest his claims and project their strengths. The Election Commission assumes and seeks to ensure that there is a level playing field among the contesting parties, but distortions make it appear more imagined than real.

Apologists for “decisive leadership”, inherent in the projection of a single leader as the panacea for the nation’s ills, cite the strength of our institutions, and the checks and balances that characterise their functioning, to suggest that concerns about majoritarianism playing havoc with our democracy may be exaggerated. The three books under review seek to lighten the concern of the reader, who searches for light at the end of the tunnel, that is, Indian democracy. But they are not evenly successful in their efforts.

Cautious optimism

In Politics in India, Subrata K. Mitra, Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany, finds evidence for cautious optimism that India will be able to keep its secular and democratic political system intact. To him, the successful holding of elections at periodical intervals despite the almost constant turmoil in some parts of the vast country is itself a hopeful sign. He suggests, without elaborating, on the basis of evidence of disaffection among sections of India’s minorities and the linkage between the legitimacy crisis at home and international terror networks that the time for a new round of institutional arrangement and appropriate conceptual rethinking might be ripe. He argues that despite significant achievements in democracy and development or because of these salient achievements that distinguish India from other postcolonial states, the incomplete project of nation-building emerges as one of the core problems of the 21st century. “Deep underneath the external symbols of democracy and governance, India is haunted by the unresolved issue of national identity”, is how he puts it, but provides no answers to it. The reader gets the sense, however, that the author agrees that India has been more or less successful in balancing the demands of national unity with regional diversity.

The book is useful in articulating some central questions which often confront a student of Indian politics. The author thus asks, “Democracy might offer the best solution to politics within the system, but how good is it at coping with politics of the system? Does the democratic process, particularly in a post-colonial context, have the strategic room to manoeuvre to reform the political system of which it is a part? What additional resources might India need to repair the ship, while keeping it afloat as storm clouds gather on the horizon?” The author, while attempting at generalisation beyond the Indian case, has pointed towards strategic reform, accountability, and social policies that balance efficiency with justice as the best solution for sustaining the progress achieved over the past two decades.

Drawing on the development of institutions and the policy process in India during the past six decades, the author argues that the likelihood of the collapse of the Indian state and its democratic political system is slim. The author is optimistic about the vitality of India’s institutional arrangement and political process. To him, India offers an interesting example of building democracy from above, in contrast to Western liberal democracies where the democratic structure grew from below.

The author considers the criticism that the political process of India accepts democracy only as interest aggregation and accommodation but not in terms of liberal values, such as respect for the freedom and dignity of individuals. Such criticism, he agrees, reinforces the apprehensions of a possible collapse or, more likely, a surreptitious gnawing away at democratic institutions until the system is reduced to an empty shell. He adds that insurgency, denial of equal rights to minorities, communal riots, political violence and criminalisation of politics further reinforces this phenomenon. At this point, one wonders whether the author contradicts himself. He says, “While the danger of a collapse of democracy cannot be ruled out altogether, survey data on legitimacy, efficacy, empowerment of former untouchables, religious minorities and women, and modes of participation and the recruitment of new local elites into mainstream politics show the strength and the potential for a further unfolding of pro-democracy forces in India.”

The author agrees that some dark spots continue to blight the democratic credentials of India—mass poverty and illiteracy persist. He adds: “Just as the electoral need to build broad-based coalitions had forced Hindu nationalists to moderate their stance, so has the political temptation to garner the votes of hard-core supporters of hindutva provided the incentive for more extreme stances for some Hindu nationalist leaders.” The puzzles of India’s democracy, according to him, are rooted in these contradictions. The author is fascinated also by the fact that the norms of democracy are widely shared by all major political parties—including the communist parties, and right-wing Hindu nationalist parties such as the Shiv Sena and the BJP —although they differ radically in their ideological positions. However, what the author appears to have missed is that parties like the BJP pay only lip service to the norms of democracy, while showing utter contempt for them in practice. The simultaneous pursuit of both moderate and extreme versions of hindutva by the BJP is a tactical attempt to broaden and keep its support base, while its seemingly democratic credentials help to hoodwink the people, who are otherwise uncomfortable with its extreme postures.


In Rogue Elephant, the journalist Simon Denyer turns out to be yet another optimist of India’s success as a democracy, even while he succeeds in exposing Narendra Modi’s double-speak. Combining reportage on current events with commentary, the author, who spent a decade as India bureau chief for The Washington Post, is not less critical of India’s failures, namely, corruption, absence of gender justice, and lack of governance. But some of his observations appear to be far from the truth. On page 399, he observes: “As the cancer of corruption has eaten away at Indian democracy, cynicism has grown—polls show a majority of middle-class respondents feel it is an obstacle to the country’s economic progress, and many express a not-so-secret yearning for a short dose of Chinese-style dictatorship.” Denyer, who has otherwise provided extensive notes to each chapter, however, does not give any details of these polls.

The author’s sympathies for neoliberalism are apparent. In “Afterword”, he observes: “It is almost as though Indians don’t quite trust their success, and their ability to compete on the world stage—we can’t let foreign supermarkets in, they say, because it will destroy our local stores, without for a minute appreciating the fantastic levels of convenience and customer service those local stores provide....” Sounds condescending? Or was it a result of lack of interaction by the author with those constructively critical of neoliberal policies?

Denyer appreciates the criticism that economic reforms have disproportionately benefited a handful of crony capitalists, but adds that they have also lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and helped to elide caste divisions. “Yet perhaps a leader will emerge some day who can truly sell India on the power of its private sector, on the idea of this nation as modern, well-governed, equitable but also aspirational,” he writes.

I am not inclined to believe that the author has Narendra Modi in mind here, considering that he has devoted a whole chapter on the Modi phenomenon, after interviewing him on a few occasions. He concludes the chapter with a prescient observation: “But in his assault on secularism and the rights of minorities, in his autocratic style, does Narendra Modi threaten the very essence of what makes India great?” Although he leaves the question unanswered, the answer is implicit, as the author more than reveals his discomfort with Moditva.


Even as the BJP’s campaign machinery has remarkably succeeded in preventing the issue of Modi’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom from dominating the 2014 general elections Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi’s book is a sad reminder of how secularism under the Modi dispensation in Gujarat was long dead, despite the seeming success of Indian democracy in the State and elsewhere in terms of Modi’s growing appeal to the electorate. Although there have been many eye-witness accounts of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, in the wake of the Godhra train tragedy there has been no book-like treatment of the subject by an academic, who lived and observed the events before, during and after the pogrom. Pogrom in Gujarat fills this void admirably. The author, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, gives a first-person account of his interactions with the ordinary people he met, using his familiarity with the Gujarati culture and people, even while posing as a foreigner to them. His Muslim-sounding name would have been a serious liability in living and experiencing those troubled times, and anyone else in his place might have chosen the easier option of writing within the comfort zones of being an academic. By coming out with the book in 2012 rather than earlier, the author has also succeeded in keeping an objective distance from the biases and prejudices which could affect the judgment of an observer, if asked to write so soon after an event.

Even as the country prepares for a possible Modi-led government at the Centre, the book tells us that howsoever strong our institutions and processes may be, secularism could still come under serious attack and people may become unwilling participants in ways one could not imagine earlier. In Gujarat, newspapers, movies, and other media helped fuel the pogrom, through false propaganda. There is an eerie similarity today with the newspapers, television channels and some prominent intellectuals vying with one another to project Modi as the answer to our problems, despite a clear lack of substance in his campaign.

Second, who would have imagined that the vegetarian sensibilities of Hindus and the language of sacrifice of the Gujarati people could be manipulated to provoke disgust against Muslims and mobilise the aspiring middle classes across caste and class differences in the name of Hindu nationalism? Ghassem-Fachandi’s account of how Hindu proponents of ahimsa in Gujarat became complicit in the very violence they claimed to renounce should alert everyone to the dangers of giving the Sangh Parivar an opportunity to repeat the Gujarat experiment elsewhere.

Ghassem-Fachandi’s book was written before Modi sought to project himself as the prime ministerial candidate, with his party bosses in New Delhi and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) falling in line, owing to the lack of a clear alternative to mobilise the party cadre on the eve of the 2014 elections. Therefore, his concluding observation that Modi remains haunted by his own words and actions before, during and after the pogrom, notwithstanding his enormous political success in the State, may appear to be somewhat misplaced, considering his success in enhancing his popular reach outside Gujarat. But there is no mistaking the potential dangers to India’s secularism inherent in his popularity.