Wednesday 20 May 2009

The idea of Indian democracy

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deserves congratulations for the victory of his Congress-led coalition in the world's largest democratic election. Having been attacked in personal terms as India's weakest ever premier by the opposition in the campaign, the cerebral Singh has become the first Indian PM since Nehru to be re-elected after a full term in office.

It is always dangerous to generalise, given the complexity of Indian politics, and I do not claim any expertise beyond a general interest. So it would be good to hear from those who have followed the campaign closely. But here are three reasons to be cheerful about Indian democracy.

1. The idea of India

A heavy defeat which is provoking much soul searching among the Hindu nationalist BJP must surely be welcomed.

There were many obituaries written a decade ago for the idea of India as democratic, secular, committed to religious and cultural pluralism, public service and economic development and an outward-looking, non-chauvinist patriotism. That was the vision of Jawahlarlal Nehru, one of my great political heroes (and, for me, perhaps the greatest of all Fabians too).

Sunil Khilnani's splendid book 'The idea of India' offers an excellent discussion of both the challenges and complexities but also the enduring appeal of Nehru's vision.

Singh faces simplistic and rather misleading attacks from both left and right for his speech at Oxford in 2005. The idea that it was an exoneration of colonialism is ridiculous if you read it. It was a confident outward-looking expression of India's independence and global engagement, recognisably in the tradition of Nehru, who remained an Anglophile despite being jailed by the British and saw it as in India's interests to forge a new Commonwealth in which independent states could enter as partners (and indeed Republics). Nehru won his triumph over colonialism in the name of universal as well as Indian values of democracy and humanity.

2. The case for growth and poverty reduction.

The great criticism of Nehru's nation-building was the stalling of India's economic progress - with what economists derisively called 'the Hindu rate of growth' (though this too had a good deal to do with the application of Fabian secularism) while Jagdish Bhagwati posited a "cruel dilemma" between democracy and development in the comparative experiences of India and China. That was too pessimistic. The story was a more complex one, as Meghnad Desai sets out. And India has been able to liberalise and accelerate its development since the early 1990s, and to do so in a way which avoided either the great famines and political torments of China's cultural revolution.

Nobody could accuse the Singh government of not being pro-growth, pro-trade and pro-global engagement. Singh's reforms as Finance Minister pioneered India's liberalisation. But they have had a strong emphasis too on a politics of redistribution.

The BJP's election defeat in 2004 stunned international observers, who expected a government with such strong growth rates to back its claim to national renaissance triumphantly re-elected under its India Shining slogan. Wisdom after the event converged on the idea that the BJP forgot about India's poor, who could not see that the benefits of the New India would trickle down to them.

The government's success has again surprised most international and Indian observers - and indeed the government itself - but the breadth of its electoral coalition is partly about a sustained attempt to fuse growth and development. (This may also be one part of the reason why the left parties did worse than expected).

As Bhakshar Dutta writes in Calcutta's Telegraph of the coalition's unexpected triumph in this year's election.

Unfortunately, the term, ‘economic reform’, has come to acquire a somewhat narrow connotation. It has come to mean only those changes that make the economy more market-friendly, while pro-poor policies are typically dismissed as populist measures and denied the status of “reforms”.

3. The robust health of Indian democracy

International commentary has consistently stressed the fragility of Indian democracy yet consistently seen pessimistic forecasts of its collapse confounded. This has been a central argument of Ramachandra Guha's books on Indian democracy.

India's first democratic election was a logistical miracle of democracy in the fledgling state, but the pattern has been repeated at so many moments since. Guha quotes The Times report in 1967 declaring that ""the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed" and that the fourth election would be the last. That prediction widely and perhaps more plausibly shared with Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in the mid-1970s; again; and again with the rise of the BJP. Indian politics is always colourful and often chaotic. But what is more evident is how robust a democratic response has been - for example, in the astonishing landslide defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977.

Dynasties certainly play a role in Indian politics. The youthful presence of Rahul Gandhi has been very prominent for Congress, offsetting the experience of the PM. But this could not be about the name alone. His cousin Varun Gandhi was a prominent BJP candidate. This was thought to be a great coup by some on the right.

So this too was a debate which went to the heart of India, as Varun Gandhi played an anti-Muslim communal card with the most extreme language of the campaign.

That seems to have backfired very badly.

India is all the better for it.

1 comment:

Rachael Jolley said...

Interesting that the BJP has done badly after a year in which it has spoken out and even been involved in violent action against women, particularly in trying to apply pressure on Indian women to wear certain types of clothing or acting independently. It is heartening to see that the Congress Party has done better than predicted.