Published : Aug 26, 2011 00:00 IST

Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly of India, signing a copy of the new Constitution at the Constitutent Assembly Hall in New Delhi in November 1949. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly of India, signing a copy of the new Constitution at the Constitutent Assembly Hall in New Delhi in November 1949. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

What democracy does in India is only a caricature of what democracy really is.

IN none too rare a moment of scepticism and self-introspection, Bernard Shaw referred to one of the many obsessions the British nurtured as national character. The British, according to Shaw, were obsessed with principles; they invented them even when none existed. For instance, whenever the British stood by a monarch, even if he happened to be a despot known for cruelty, they did so on the principle of patriotism. However, they had no hesitation in consigning the same king to Westminster Abbey, if circumstances so demanded. While renouncing the earlier principle of patriotism in order to kill the king, they invoked a new principle the principle of democracy!

Bernard Shaw seems to suggest that to the British principles are nothing but a convenient pretext, which can be invoked or discarded according to the exigencies of the situation. Having been tutored by the colonial masters in the principles of liberalism and influenced by the virtues of Indian civilisation, rooted in self-abnegation and renunciation, as taught by the spiritual mentors from Gautama Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi, Indians entertained a similar attitude towards idealism. Both patriotism and democracy are dear to their heart. But their commitment to them is more in principle and less in practice. Almost everyone swears by democracy, but very few care to follow it in public life. Consequently, there is a gulf, almost unbridgeable, between principle and practice. This essay is an effort to explore this gulf in the context of equality, which is the foundation of democracy. It is the contention of this essay that the crisis of Indian democracy is because of the failure of the state to ensure equality and the inability of civil society to create a public sphere capable of generating critical engagement with social issues.

Although democracy is a holistic phenomenon and its different components are interconnected, its three main attributes can be identified as political, economic and cultural equality. These three attributes collectively contribute to the make-up of a healthy democratic regime, and consequently the success of democracy depends upon the extent to which these equalities are respected and implemented. The vibrancy of a functioning democracy, therefore, would depend upon the social acceptance of the idea of equality, which as a principle the Indian Republic has written into its Constitution. Yet, in practice equality is a far cry in any of these three domains.

This condition raises the question whether the prevalence of institutional structures is a sufficient guarantee to ensure democratic rights. This question is pertinent in the Indian context as, despite institutional support, the functioning of Indian democracy during the last 63 years has perpetuated and deepened differences within society.

Political Equality

The institutional structure of Indian democracy prescribed by the Constitution provided for equality of rights to all citizens, regardless of social differences. The objectives Resolution itself stated this principle in unambiguous terms. It declared that there should be secured to all the people justice, social, economic and political; equality of status, of opportunity, and before the law. Despite the continuous tinkering with the Constitution by the ruling elite 95 amendments are in place so far these basic guarantees of the Constitution have remained unaffected. Yet, in practice, democracy has not been able to secure justice to all; its dispensation has been distorted because democratic rights have not been accessible evenly to everyone.

Let us begin with political rights, which in some ways are central to democratic practice. The political rights subsume equality, without which democratic participation is not possible. Although political rights involve a wide range of issues, including freedom of expression and association, the right to represent and be represented through election is universally accepted as the defining feature of democracy. The importance of the system of representation of the people is that it erases the separation of the state and the people. But the government through representation recognises democracy only as a formal part of the state and not as its essence. Therein lies the weakness of the representative system of democracy, which is most glaring in the Indian case.

In India, the mechanism of representation is universal suffrage, both in the Centre and in the States. The successful record of timely elections has drawn universal admiration, particularly because in most other post-colonial countries election has been a major casualty. The successful conduct of elections has given considerable legitimacy to democratic polity and the system of representation on which its practice is embedded. Yet, the representative system raises a variety of questions about its democratic character. One of them is the manner in which majority is determined. Democracy being the rule of the majority, the process through which the majority is formed is of crucial importance. What constitutes the majority in a system of representation is open to different interpretations, as there are different modes of determining majority in an electoral system. India has adopted a direct system in which whoever gets the largest number of votes is elected.

This system does not necessarily ensure that those who enjoy electoral success have the mandate of the majority of those who exercise their right to vote. It is conceivable that those who wield power on behalf of the majority have in fact the support only of a minority. Such a contingency is possible because of the multiparty system, which allows not only different parties, but even individuals to contest elections. If votes are distributed among different contestants in a constituency, a candidate could win with less than 50 per cent votes. The democratic form of government based on such a mandate, in strict political sense, is not the rule of the majority. Naturally, such a situation adversely impacts upon the representative character of democratic institutions. Some democratic countries have tried to overcome this anomaly by insisting upon at least 50 per cent of the votes cast to the winning candidate.

Another pertinent question is whether the social conditions in India permit a free and fair working of the representative system. The political class in India is drawn from the affluent, educated and socially powerful sections of society. The system is so much under their thumb that the poor and the marginalised hardly have a chance to make it to the pulpit. As a consequence, in the Legislative Assemblies and in Parliament, they are represented, they hardly represent themselves, except through reservation. Therefore, the political opportunity and the social ability to represent the people is now confined to a minuscule section of society. The instances of former Presidents K.R. Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam are always cited to prove the contrary. They are exceptions which prove the rule.

Every succeeding Parliament contains increasing numbers from the upper echelons of society, with the current House assuming the character of an exclusive club of millionaires and multimillionaires. The much-admired election itself has become so expensive that no ordinary citizen can afford to fight an election on his or her own steam. The only democratic right the demos enjoy is the privilege of electing their representatives. As a result the class composition of our democratic institutions has become almost predetermined.

Package of rights

The Constitution has given to the people an impressive package of democratic rights, which has earned plaudits from political scientists and constitutional experts. These rights are consistently invoked in public meetings, university classrooms and, indeed, in Parliament as well. Almost everybody swears by democracy, but the majority of the people have no stakes in its functioning, except as passive participants in the battle of the ballot.

In popular perception, and even in liberal scholarly analysis, the system of representation is synonymous with democratic polity. Samuel Huntington, for instance, observes, Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. The idealisation of balloting is so overwhelming that all aberrations in its actual practice are tolerated, including the purchase of votes and distribution of incentives. This is partly because by and large elections have been taking place regularly, providing the people an opportunity to participate in the political process. The participation is not limited to the educated middle class, but extends to the poor and the marginalised in the rural sector who have shown considerable maturity in the exercise of democratic rights. The wisdom of the common voter has reinforced the faith in the system. The electoral behaviour of the people after the Emergency and the five-year rule of the Hindu communal forces are cited as examples of political maturity of the Indian electorate.

Yet, the life of a large section of this electorate remains untouched by the democratic rule they have installed in power. As a result, discontent has been brewing in large parts of the country. In most cases the root cause of violence and insurgency has been this discontent. The state, instead of seeking a solution for the causes of discontent, uses its military might to suppress dissident voices. As a result, a large section of the population is alienated from the functioning of democratic institutions.

That democratic institutions have not yet achieved vertical expansion is possibly one of the reasons for this situation. In fact, Indian democracy suffers from over centralisation of authority and concentration of power. Mahatma Gandhi was quite conscious of this possibility and hence advocated gram swaraj for empowering people at the village level. The Panchayati Raj, which the state adopted for effecting vertical expansion of democratic practice, has not really become effective. As a result, common citizens have no voice in the actual working of the democratic structure, as the representative system per se does not ensure democratic rule. It only provides the basic structure for rule by the elected majority.

Cultural Equality

The making of India as a nation had to address the impact of cultural diversity on the practice of democracy. Cultural plurality has been the strength of Indian civilisation. But the absence of cultural equality led to the exclusion of many from the mainstream life. The hierarchical structure of caste and differences in religious life created cultural exclusion, which impinged adversely upon democratic practice.

Neither the 19th century renaissance nor the national movement succeeded in ushering in a sense of cultural equality, even if they were engaged in religion and social reform. The long-drawn-out struggle for independence brought different cultural groups together in a common endeavour, but it did not have much of an impact on the cultural boundaries separating different social groups. Therefore the process of nation-building on which India embarked upon after Independence had a distinct disadvantage of a culturally divided house on the basis of caste and religion. Society was made up of a large number of culturally distinct communities. The Anthropological Survey of India has estimated the existence of more than 4,000 communities with distinctly different cultural practices. The diversity meant plurality and coexistence, which could lead to mutual enrichment through assimilation, even if it did not result in synthesis. The Indian national movement was based on such a perception of cultural life, which was important for a democratic society. Gandhiji subscribed to this idea and Jawaharlal Nehru promoted it through a secular interpretation of the Indian past. The emergence of communal consciousness among Hindus and Muslims negated the multicultural conception of Indian civilisation. The cultural interpretation of the nation by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah undermined the nationalist efforts to construct a cultural unity.

During the course of the 19th century, because of a variety of reasons ranging from internal reform to Census enumeration, religious and caste communities developed a consciousness, which, among other things, tended to reinforce their demarcation from each other. Initially, the demarcation was social in nature, often based on the quest for upward mobility in the caste hierarchy. Simultaneously most of them were also engaged in modernisation through changes in social practices and ritual performance, and through education and so on. However, modernisation did not erase or weaken but strengthened in an unprecedented manner the caste boundaries, which no longer remained fuzzy. Changes within the caste order through occupational mobility or fragmentation also became quite rare.

By the beginning of the 20th century caste was poised for more extensive social articulation, an opportunity for which presented itself with the introduction of the politics of representation. This was an opportunity caste had not enjoyed before. When the politics of representation was introduced in the 20th century, caste had the organisational strength to attempt political mobilisation. As a consequence, caste had the advantage of an already constructed social identity that was antithetical to the idea of democracy. The conception and practice of caste, Nehru had observed, embodied the aristocratic ideal and was obviously opposed to democratic conceptions.

Influence of religion

Simultaneously, the gulf between religious communities were also becoming increasingly wider and their relationships were becoming less and less harmonious. It coincided with the transition of the influence of religion from the private to the public sphere. The two major and interconnected developments promoting this transition in recent times have been the religionalisation of society and the commodification of religion. The emergence of new centres of worship and the organisation of pilgrimages have been part of this development. Even if the state has not been able to build enough number of dams and factories, which Nehru described as the temples of modern India, places of worship temples and mosques have recorded a phenomenal increase. Recent studies indicate that faith in religion and observance of rituals have increased considerably during the last few years all over the world. Perhaps no proof is needed for this phenomenon. The number of pilgrims thronging religious centres is enough of an indication of the hold of religious faith. Whatever the reason crisis of the middle class and improved infrastructure, transport and communication religion is being commodified.

It is difficult to estimate the amount of money generated by religious and ancillary activities. For religious centres have given rise to a variety of enterprises, including pilgrimage tourism. The importance of this development is that society has been divided on religious lines, which impinges upon the possibility of secular mobilisation.

The consequence of the importance thus gained by religion and religious entrepreneurs is the extension of their influence to the secular domain. An area in which this is most pronounced is politics, which has led to both religionisation of politics and politicisation of religion. In contemporary Indian politics, therefore, religion is a powerful mobilising force that is invoked even by secular parties and individuals in their quest for power. As a consequence, religion has an abiding presence in public life, steadily displacing secular engagements. The number of organisations that function in the guise of social and cultural activities but owe allegiance to different religions has increased steadily. Among Hindus, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has sponsored innumerable organisations that function as specialist agencies to deal with different aspects of social life. Through the Jan Sangh and then the Bharatiya Janata Party, they marked their presence in politics. So is the case with Muslims. Unfortunately, the attitude of the state has been one of vacillation and compromise, which has encouraged the intervention of religion in secular politics. The history of the dispute over the Babri Masjid is a prime example of the attitude of the state. The decline in the secular commitment of the state is the most dangerous threat Indian democracy has faced in recent times.

Caste and religion have had a subterranean presence in Indian politics from the time of the nationalist movement. Since then the situation has changed dramatically. The parties based on caste and religion have come to the fore and now command considerable space in politics. Their influence has become so decisive that caste-based parties have been in power in several States. At the same time, Hindu communal forces achieved a major political advance by wielding power at the Centre. More importantly, caste and religious consciousness has become so overpowering that almost every political party conducts its politics with an eye on possible caste and religious support. As a result, caste antagonism and religious conflict have become the order of the day and the tradition of accommodation and cultural interaction has been corroded, leading to an increasing gulf between religions and between castes. Hindus treat Muslims as culturally inferior. Within Hinduism, Dalits and other lower castes face cultural oppression. The cultural inferiority/superiority practised as a consequence has created an anti-democratic ambience. The absence of cultural equality has excluded a large section of people from the cultural mainstream and has led to interminable tension within society.

Economic Inequality

The economic conditions in post-colonial India were none too favourable for the successful functioning of a democratic system. Inherent in the conditions left behind by the colonial rulers were several areas of tension and conflict, which in course of time came to the fore. The economic disadvantages far surpassed the benefits of the liberal idea into which the intelligentsia was initiated by the colonial administration. The country was denuded of its resources by colonial appropriation; the system of communication and transport was not adequately developed; the social reach of education was limited; and facilities for medical care were unsatisfactory. In fact, colonialism ensured that Indian society remained backward in almost every aspect of human existence.

The post-colonial economic policy and development was expected to overcome this backwardness as quickly as possible and ensure social justice by improving the conditions of the poor and the marginalised. The principle which informed this expectation was liberal idealism, which advocated that all citizens have an equal right to the resources of the nation. The nature of economic development based on capitalist modernisation adopted this idea in principle but belied it in practice by pursuing an entirely different course. As a consequence, economic development became elite-centred, which apportioned the resources in a manner that ensured that it was utilised primarily for improving the quality of life of the upper stratum of society. What the poor could expect at best was the trickle-down effect. The justification advanced by the state for such a policy was quite attractive to the middle class. It genuinely believed that neoliberal conditions were a necessary prerequisite for a leap forward in the country's quest for modernisation. The change in the character of the market now available to it has reinforced its conviction.

Modernisation, however, cannot be achieved without sacrifices by some strata or the other. If so, let it be the poor. Let them live on Rs.20 or less a day, send their children to schools without blackboards and benches and sleep on the pavements in metropolitan cities, borrow from moneylenders to marry off daughters, and, if life becomes unbearable, let them choose the honourable option of committing suicide. The others need not have any moral compunction, as these sacrifices, after all, are for creating a modern nation.

Two worlds

The country is now divided between an inner world of the affluent and the outer world of the poor. The most striking metaphor of this distinction is the state-of-the-art airports, artistically decorated and thickly carpeted, with outlets of designer products, massage parlours and food courts. In contrast, what a passenger sees while landing in Mumbai, the most modern of Indian metropolises, is not so aesthetically attractive a sprawling slum with plastic sheets used for protection from nature. The slums are not limited to the outskirts of airports. In almost all major cities about 60 per cent of the population lives in slums and on footpaths.

The disparity between the two worlds, which militates against the democratic ideal, is so stark that it is nothing short of a miracle that the country is able to maintain social equilibrium. Not that there are no conflicts, revolts or insurgencies. There are a plenty. The tribal people in the north-eastern part of the country have been in a state of continuous turmoil; Dalits are alienated from the mainstream; and the people of Kashmir have been living under Army occupation for years. Yet, the nation has held together primarily because of two reasons. First, strong intervention by the state, including the use of the Army, whenever its authority was questioned, either for preserving the nation's unity or for safeguarding the interests of the privileged sections. This has led to violations of human rights. The Army operation against the Maoists and the arrest and incarceration of Binayak Sen are recent examples. In dealing with internal challenges, the Indian state has been quite powerful, even brutal, although quite weak in responding to imperialist aggressions.

Secondly, the Indian democratic practices have performed an ideological function to attract the underprivileged to the democratic fold. In the perspective of many people, elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy. The liberal ideologues of the capitalist system romanticise elections as the most important measure of democracy. The enthusiastic participation of the rural poor and urban slum dwellers and other such sections of society is taken as an indication of popular support to the system. But a comparable involvement with the actual functioning of democracy has not been forthcoming, even among the middle class. The absence of a public sphere, actively engaged in subjecting democratic practices to critical scrutiny, has been one among the many reasons for this indifference.

Role of Public Sphere

The active involvement of civil society is a prerequisite for the effective functioning of the democratic system. In fact, without critical transactions in the public sphere democratic practice is likely to remain weak and ineffective. As pointed out by John Rawls and Habermas, the ability for public reasoning, which discussion and dialogue in the public sphere alone can realise, is central to democratic practice. Rawls has suggested that the definitive idea for deliberative democracy is the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions. In a democratic system there are different fora available for discussion about the practice of democracy. Most of them are formal institutions of the state such as the legislature and committees of the executive. The administrative policies and decisions are also brought before the judiciary. A much more important role is perhaps vested with the institutions functioning outside the government structure. Democracy has to be judged, writes Amartya Sen, not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard ( Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, London, 2009, page xiii). That is possible only when democracy is enriched by political participation, dialogue and public interaction, as balloting can be manipulated, as has happened in several authoritarian regimes in the past. Even Adolf Hitler came to power through the support of the ballot. It is in this context that the role of the public sphere and of the civil society organisations that inhabit it become important.

The public sphere in India has primarily evolved through the interventions of voluntary organisations and the media. In shaping the character of the public sphere and the nature of transactions within it they have exercised considerable influence, at least from the 18th century. They have been instrumental in organising and promoting the exchange of views on secular subjects. In the process they introduced a critical and rational character to the public sphere in dealing with the problems of both the state and society. The Indian intelligentsia imbibed early lessons in public reasoning through its participation in these institutions. Voluntary organisations do not play such a role any longer, either because their character has changed or because the space occupied by them has been taken over by non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, which function mainly as extensions of the state apparatus. Most of them have lost their critical and rational spirit and consequently have increasingly succumbed to the influence of religious and communal rationale. Innumerable organisations are now present in the public sphere, which does not promote informed discussion but spreads obscurantism and irrationality. This transformation has led to the reordering of the public sphere, which no more promotes rational dialogue conducive to the growth of public reasoning.

Role of media

A comparable change has taken place in the character of the media, which in the past played a decisive role in the formation of the public sphere and transactions within it. The media in India, as in any other country, had a protective function that can be traced to the manner in which colonialism was subjected to criticism. The media devoted considerable space to highlight the contradiction between the colonial state and the people which deepened the public reasoning of democratic aspirations. As a result, media became a powerful channel for the dissemination of anti-colonial consciousness and nationalism. In the process it promoted informed public discussion, which helped the growth of a democratic ethos.

The role of the media became more important in post-Independence India because of the nexus between public reasoning and democratic practice. The nature of issues on which debates were conducted in the public sphere impacted upon the content of democracy. However, they were predominantly on problems that concerned the interests of the privileged sections, as debates were controlled and conducted by the members of the middle class. In these debates the protective function of the media was almost absent.

The media is more concerned with the freedom of expression, dissemination of information and propagation of values. What is missing is the campaign for social justice, as a result of which no public pressure is exerted on democratic institutions to take cognisance of the misery of the common people. The suicides of farmers because of poverty, or of students because of their inability to pay fees, receive only passing reference. At the same time, the media focus on the adventures, or are they misadventures, of the affluent, for which regular slots are reserved. If society as depicted in the visual media is real, the only preoccupation of the people is to adorn expensive clothes, pray to the family deity and consume rich food. Evidently such a media cannot make a healthy contribution to debates that are meant to enrich democratic practice.

Indian democracy has evolved an institutional structure on the basis of the principles and prescriptions laid down in the Constitution. But there is a wide gulf between precept and practice. Democracy as practised by the state and society is far removed from the ideal form of democracy in which equalities political, cultural and economic are continuously negotiated. The gulf between the concept and practice may not be fully bridged ever, but it could be reduced through continuous public reasoning and dialogue. Amartya Sen has argued that the availability of a most perfect institutional structure need not necessarily ensure the success of democracy. The success would largely depend upon the intervention of human agency for using the available opportunities.

What democracy does in India is only a caricature of what democracy really is. The ideal is indeed difficult to realise. But it is likely that struggles within democracy might take it closer to an approximation of what democracy is.

( This is the text of the inaugural address at the Asian College of Journalism on July 11, 2011.

K.N. Panikkar is former professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached at

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