Dimensions of India Experience: Democracy

To attempt a framework to disentangle the India experience, which is defined by the endless dialectic, I created a 5-D framework for the benefit of my correspondents: Democracy, Domesticity, Diversity, Divinity and Duality. 

Indeed, I played with the letter D to make it more memorable. For example, Religiosity would have been more apt in place of Divinity, and Family-orientation may have been better suited than Domesticity. But,  in India one thing can pass off for the other, and I thought my 5-D framework is quite usable, and not very off the mark.

I shall start with Democracy, and I am not trying to adopt a self-congratulatory tone. In fact, I shall agree with Sudhir and Katrina Kakkar when they write, 'Indians are World's most undemocratic people'. They say that because in India, everyone wants to be somebody, and scramble for social prominence, they do it by defining an ever narrower frame of reference and by shifting the parameters endlessly. This can be hilarious at times, and tragic at other instances. In Hofstede's scale, India combines a high level of Power Distance with a significant Individualist orientation - that's not what will define a Democratic Mindset.

Yet, India is a Democracy, a large, chaotic yet functioning one. One can wonder how it managed to be so. Someone told me India is a democracy because no two people can agree on anything: That indeed was meant to be a joke, but the truth, however cynical, is unmissable. This seems a genuine representation of what it seems to be from outside. Indian democracy seems to be an endless talking shop, where nothing seems to be agreed upon. Tarun Khanna contrasts China, where progress happens because of the Government, with India, where progress happens inspite of it.

So, while most people agree that India ought to remain a democracy, whatever its deficiencies, they maintain it is an accident or a social quirk that it has become one. But, I shall argue that India could not have been anything other than a democracy. This is largely because the way modern India was shaped, and because of the other four dimensions of the India experience that I already mentioned.

Let me explain this point. About 30 years before India gained its independence, Gandhi transformed the country by bringing in the excluded classes, the farmers, the untouchables, the workers, into the political process. Undoubtedly, there were other leaders too, Rajendra Prasad emerged from Bihar leading the farmers, Ambedkar provided an icon the untouchables can rally around, but it was Mahatma who was the instigator in chief. He is the one who threw open the gates and asked everyone to participate. But, he did it without hatred, or by instigating divisions. He transcended the caste and class, which he could have resorted to quite easily. He preached non-violence as the method, which, at the bottom of it, stands on the assumption of humanity even in your oppressors, and excludes no one in the process.  

This, done over three decades, changed the political dynamic of modern India. India's freedom struggle was not a class war, or a tribe or section of the population rising up in arms, as we would see in many African societies, but a slow, inclusive, political process, which creates an Indian identity in steps and makes it deeply democratic. 

There is no place for a what-if analysis in history, but contrast this with the process of creation of Pakistan. The political process of creation of Pakistan was much more exclusionary, a political class that won the country. I shall argue this is why it is so difficult for democracy to take root in Pakistan.

In fact, it is possible to take this conjecture further and see why Pakistan finally broke up. One can see the obvious reasons - geographic distance and cultural diversity - why East Pakistan walked out of the Federation and created Bangladesh. But, the dispute was primarily on account of acceptance of the results of a democratic election. One can point out, with reservations, that the political process of independence was much more inclusive in the East Pakistan than the West of Pakistan, and the secession was more on the issue of democratic governance than culture or language. [I am aware that Bangladesh has spent more than a decade under Military dictatorships, and democratic elections proved a tricky affair. But, I would say the democratic process in Bangladesh is irreversible, and at least the major party, Awami League, is committed to democracy despite its other shortcomings]

Returning to India, Mahatma's inclusiveness, backed by his commitment to non-violence, created the fabric of modern India. Many observers miss this bit when looking at India. India, I shall say, was created by geography [its relative isolation by mountains on the north and oceans on the south], given a spiritual identity in the ancient times, a political unity by the Mughals and an economic identity by the British, but in all these forms, India was a fractured country which excluded most of its populace from opportunity and political process. Modern India, as visualized by Gandhi and his contemporaries, brought, for the first time, everyone to the party. And, by doing so, it became irreversibly democratic.

Last year, when India had a general election, Western media was full of wonder, of the chaos, of confusion but also of commitment to democratic principles. But this is only a continuation of a process which was ingrained in Indian psyche since the first General Election in India, held in 1950, which was an act of boldness and imagination. It was seen logical and natural following on from Gandhian inclusiveness, but most people, foreign observers and Indian elite alike, considered it an act of insanity at the time. Remember, democracy was still not fashionable, and the democracy export industry had not yet been started up. Many historians believed that Nehru, the chief evangelist of such democratic election, got the idea from British and American democracies; no doubt he did. He was deeply respectful of the Western liberal traditions and free speech. But, one must realize that Nehru was so unwaveringly democratic because he was a committed student of Gandhian nationalism, and he observed first hand, and understood the significance of, the magic of inclusiveness and how that transformed the entire political process.

That practise, which was put in place by Gandhi's ideals, Nehru's faith and efficient execution by many superbly competent administrators, starting with Sukumar Sen, India's first Chief Election Commissioner, transformed India for ever. Fareed Zakaria says that constitutionalism and rule of law should precede democratic voting. India got the sequence just right - a rule of law [under the British rule, the framework was established despite the inherent prejudice of the system] and a modern constitution before the voting took place - and even better, because it created an inclusive political platform where everyone can participate. In fact, the whole concept of Indianness [particularly the modern one, which came into being after the subtraction of Pakistan] was based on this inclusive, democratic self.

Besides this founding legacy, India could not have been anything but democratic because of the other four ingredients of Indianness - Domesticity, Diversity, Divinity and Duality. While I intend to explore each one of them in separate posts subsequently, I would touch upon the democratic aspect of each one of these dimensions.

Let's start with Domesticity, which I shall define as the extreme Indian attachment to one's own family. The family comes first in India, before all other identities. This creates problems in different areas, but this undermines the development of tribal feelings, as in Africa to Afghanistan. Even the linguistic identities do not become all-encompassing because of the primacy of the family. This, strangely, makes India a more individualist society than the other comparable Asian societies. This allows India to be more democratic, by extension.

Diversity has a more obvious effect. India is maddeningly diverse, a melee of different social groups, languages, economic classes, geographic regions. Each one of these identities are strong identities, but as an Indian, therefore, it is easier to grasp the multiplicity of identity. As Amartya Sen points out in his brilliantly argued Identity and Violence, most of our problems occur when we let one identity take over our complete self, ahead of all other identities that we may have. Most poignant example of this can be found when a Muslim born and educated in Britain allows himself to be completely identified as a Jihadist, and kisses his daughter good-bye before committing an act of terror which is bound to kill civilians of different origins and persuasions. As an Indian, it is easier to see for me that we are actually a bundle of identities all the time, and while we allow primacy of one identity over others at times, we know that it is a mistake trying to define us just through one identity. One may see this ability to handle multiple identities as a pre-condition to modernity, and a necessary enabler for democratic thinking.

I shall say Divinity is an essential aspect of Indian thought, knowing fully well that all Indians are not Hindus. However, this is a cultural thing in India, possibly coming out of Hindu religious consciousness, but now embedded in all religions practised in India. The essential aspect of this Divinity is to believe that God resides inside human beings, which allows a bit of moral relativism. The majority of Hindus conduct their lives with this faith that the God is inside them, which gives us a sense of power and in some, a sense of responsibility. This possibly connects very well when a poor, uneducated farmer is given a vote. Despite all the power distance, that act of choice essentially ignites the empowered, enabled self inside. The fact that you can decide what will happen in the world isn't necessarily an alien thought for an Indian.

However, most of these 'idealized' dimensions need a bit of test of reality, and that comes with the Duality aspect. India, despite its variations, is two countries: one English speaking, and the other Asiatic. One is  a monochrome, Western society; the other, a rainbow society, with diverse language and culture, is true to its ancient origins and unchanging faith. The India we usually see is the continuous dialectic of these two selves, sometimes evident within one person, but more commonly in full play inside extended families. The apparent chaos of India comes out of this deep duality: of modern/ancient, secular/religious, material/spiritual, short term/long term existence side-by-side. While we shall return to this later, this duality enables the democratic instinct - of individual choice in conversation with tolerance and patience for those who differ.

In summary, India is an essentially democratic society. Based on the arguments above, one may even say it is one of the most democratic in the world. Not just the largest, but deep and abiding; because democracy is such an essential aspect of Indianness. It is irreversible too, despite all the alarmist thinking that Indian democracy may fall apart under the weight of Hindu supremacist political ideology. So, any exercise in understanding India should start with an understanding its democratic instinct, in the context of its historical origins.


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