Indian democracy and its contradictions

Pulapre Balakrishnan

 ‘The Raisina Model’ by Meghnad Desai is a meditation on democracy in India. It is written for the intelligent layperson as an evaluation of it. The title is meant to suggest that there is an Indian version of democracy. In the words of the author “India has succeeded in transforming the Westminster model into something much more suitable to its culture and practice. I have called this the Raisina Model.”

            Central to Desai’s evaluation is that India has defied all odds to remain one country. This had not been expected at the time of Indian independence, the imperialist Winston Churchill having been among the sceptics. India’s survival is credited to democracy. Two histories are provided to place the achievement in perspective. The first is of Pakistan which broke in two within twenty five years and the other is of Yugoslavia which broke up amidst much bloodshed. How are we to see this argument? Of course, the holding together of India is significant in a world fragmented by language and religion but there had always been an idea of India as a land – if not a country – of diverse peoples, and this view got strengthened during the national movement. Secondly, while Indian democracy had shown remarkable maturity on the one occasion when secession appeared to be a possibility, which was over the issue of Hindi being established as the national language, the idea of India as a land extending from today’s Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal in the east and to below the Deccan in the south had existed even at the time of Ashoka, which precedes the Common Era and predates democracy as we know it.

            The second success of Indian democracy according to Desai is the social revolution or the weakening of distance derived from the caste system. He has in mind the developments following the acceptance of the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of reservation in government jobs and unbuilding iversity admission for the Other Backward Classes. It is claimed that this has led to an improvement in the condition of the Dalits and the Backward Classes. As no evidence is given we are not in a position to assess the claim but the following can be said. Though it is the case that those able to avail of job reservations would improve their lot, it is doubtful whether reservations can improve the condition of a whole section of society with employment in the public sector shrinking, as is the case in India since 1991 when market forces were given a greater role. In general, the argument that the condition of those at the bottom of the social ladder will improve only when they are represented by leaders of their own social group, read caste here, is perhaps overrated. It is worth asking whether the condition of the Dalits is better in Kerala, which has not had caste-based political mobilisation but has seen communist governments, or in UP, where Mayawati has been returned to power four times. The ending of the old elite that had led the national movement, which Desai approves of,  has also come with a recrudescence of dynasty in politics and an unimaginable increase in personal wealth while in office of the new one, outcomes that we would expect democracy to keep at bay. Lalu Prasad Yadav is in jail; K. Karunanidhi was among the first politicians to be charged of serious corruption while in office. It is worth mentioning here that neither Nehru nor Namboodiripad had promoted their progeny and, though both of them had been born into considerable wealth, died with very little.

            Surprisingly neither public goods-provision nor the building of individual capability through public action figure in Desai's evaluation of Indian democracy. Surely individuals come together to adopt the democratic form of governance to better their condition, and it may be reasonably be assumed that public goods form part of they seek. On this score European democracy trumps the other variants. While the American version champions individual rights group rights appear to dominate the discourse in India. Both these societies have ended up with a weaker social sector than Europe, where, for instance, Britain’s National Health Service and world-class publicly-funded universities stand out. India has either negligible or poor-quality health and schooling in the public sector and poor physical infrastructure. Public goods matter not only for personal welfare but also can be a powerful instrument for extinguishing social distance and inducing cohesion. Being non-rivalrous and non-exclusionary they epitomise the democratic ethos. As for the provision of public services, such as there exists in India, it has suffered from the avoidable sentimentality that striving for excellence in this sphere is a form of elitism. This has ensured that many public goods and services in India are of the lowest quality, leading to exit across all social groups and income classes, thus defeating the very rationale for providing them.            

            The signal contribution in ‘The Raisina Model’ is the questioning of both the assertion of the idea of a Hindu nation and the response to it in the form of ‘secularism’. For the author, India comprises many nations, each with its language, history and religion. There is “no need for a single story, single religion, single language to define India”, this search being the vice of the nationalist. Equally, “privileging the Hindu-Muslim divide” as the sole axis of differentiation, as the secularists do, leaves the numerous other minorities and linguistic nations outside the discourse. Desai locates both these tendencies in the history of India’s Hindi heartland, with little purchase elsewhere in the country. They have endured because national politics after Independence has been dominated by north Indian politicians. Hindu nationalism excludes the Naga tribes and secularism is irrelevant when it comes to dealing with the issues raised by the Naxalites.

            It is on the history of the economy that this reviewer has differences with the author. Rather than assess Indian democracy on what it has achieved on the economic front, much of a whole chapter on the economy is devoted to a scathing account of the economic policy before 1991. This is disappointing, as Lord Desai is an economist of the front rank, and one would have hoped for analysis. Though we can now see that India performed poorly by comparison with the economies of the east, it would yet not be correct to say that India’s economic policy in the early years was “mistaken”. Not only did the rate of growth of the economy accelerate more than once before 1991 but also there had not been on offer in the 1950s a significant alternative to what was actually pursued. India’s failure was not in terms of the chosen economic ‘model’, involving controls and public investment, but that the leadership failed to see the importance of schooling. The countries of east Asia had worked with more or less the same economic model as India did but invested in human capital, and in the absence of democracy were able to implement their plans better.                   

            This book deserves to be read widely. It is based on a deep understanding of India today, how it got here and what its prospects could be. The narration is compelling, the style is lucid, and excellent production gives it a fetching appearance.