(The article was originally published by Indian Express on March 11, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
Fareed Zakaria argues in Future of Freedom that democracies are hardly perfect and while there are many illiberal democracies, there are some that are excessively liberal. India is no exception. Nobody can claim that its democracy has attained perfection. Like other democracies, it too has its flaws. Eternal vigilance and a constant endeavour to root them out are necessary.
Such efforts over the past several decades have resulted in creating strong political awareness. The Indian electorate can no longer be taken for granted by parties and leaders. Both the BJP and Congress have had firsthand experience of this. Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay were cocksure about victory in the 1977 elections but the electorate handed them the worst defeat in 25 years. Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought reelection six months ahead of schedule riding on the “India Shining” campaign in 2004, but the people decided to give the mandate to the Opposition coalition led by the Congress.
In the last five years, while they overwhelmingly supported Narendra Modi for the national government, they also reposed trust in Opposition parties in as many as 14-15 states. That is evidence of the robustness of Indian democracy. When Jawaharlal Nehru declared that independent India shall have “nothing but democracy”, many were sceptical. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee warned him that democracy was not suited for a country like India. “The Asiatic republics are few and of recent establishment. Their record is not very encouraging. They tend to degenerate into dictatorships or oligarchies. They offer a prize for the ambitious authoritarian individual”, he cautioned.
In the Constituent Assembly, too, some members expressed similar apprehensions about universal adult franchise. But both Prime Minister Nehru and President of the Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, reassured them about the political sagacity of the Indian masses. “They (people) are not literate and do not possess the mechanical skill of reading and writing. But I have no doubt in my mind that they are able to take measure of their own interest and also of the interests of the country at large if things are explained to them”, Prasad said in his final address to the Assembly on November 26, 1949.
Speaking in the Assembly on November 25, 1949, B R Ambedkar went one step further and said: “It is not that India did not know what democracy or parliaments or parliamentary procedure is. A study of the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that not only there were Parliaments — for, the sanghas were nothing but parliaments — but the sanghas knew and observed all the rules of parliamentary procedure known to modern times. Although these rules of parliamentary procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the sanghas, he must have borrowed them from the rules of the political assemblies functioning in the country in his time.”
Over the last seven decades, the Indian Constitution has helped build a vibrant democratic institutional mechanism that many countries want to emulate. India’s Election Commission has developed processes like electronic voting machines and multi-phase voting schedules that make elections transparent and efficient. The EC has signed Memoranda of Understanding and established exchange activities for extending technical help in election management with dozens of countries.
The judiciary remains independent. Judicial oversight and overreach are questioned and debated vigorously, both inside and outside Parliament, but not with any intention to curtail its independence. Parliament’s decision to streamline the appointment of judges to the higher judiciary through a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) was withheld by the government when the Supreme Court rejected it. Many eminent jurists agree with the political view that the collegium system should be replaced with a more balanced one. Disagreements over its constitution continue to delay the re-introduction of NJAC, but that delay is in itself evidence of the vibrancy of India’s democracy.
Is this democracy under threat today? Rankings of some international agencies and the rantings of some political leaders want the world to believe so.
Interestingly, questions over the nascent democracy arose right after Independence. Nehru, whom many consider a quintessential democrat, faced severe criticism from his colleagues in Congress for being undemocratic. Morarji Desai called him an “exhibitionist”, and Durga Das said he was “a superb performer”. Nehru’s colleague and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, D P Mishra wrote that “under Nehru, the grain of democracy disappeared leaving only the husk behind”. N V Gadgil admitted that Nehru was so intolerant of criticism that “one can speak in opposition to him only within a limit”. Indian democracy faced its worst-ever challenge during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975-77, when the fundamental rights of the citizens were suspended, political opposition gagged, media freedoms robbed, and judicial independence curbed.
On the contrary, political dissent finds its full expression today. Media and social media have strong voices of political dissonance that find traction with a section of the masses. While some senior constitutional representatives voice views on the judiciary that generate debate, judicial independence is zealously safeguarded both by the judiciary and government.
Indian democracy touched its high point when a tribal person occupied the highest constitutional position. A leader from the backward classes adorns the highest position in the government. SCs, STs, OBCs and women constitute over 60 per cent of the Cabinet. Yet, if some leaders lament that this mature and inclusive democracy is in danger, it could either be because of the frustration over their political failures or due to a feudal mindset of entitlement that they inherited from their forefathers. But the world thinks otherwise. Indian democracy is “the largest expression of free political will by citizens anywhere in the world”, Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State complimented recently.