Deeper but unfinished

Ashutosh Varshney

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LET us imagine an analytic conversation. If one asked Robert Dahl (1998, 1991, 1971), the world’s leading democratic theorist since the Second World War, what he thought of Indian democracy today, what would he say? What do five Indian elections in ten years since 1989, and their content, illustrate, symbolize, or show?

Dahl would argue that India has become a mature democracy, though he would add that it has room for greater maturity. Stated differently, India’s democracy is deeper than it used to be, but several democratic battles remain. On what basis can we say that it is deeper? And why is it unfinished?

India’s democracy is deeper because it satisfies, more than ever before, two principal criteria of democratic theory: contestation and participation. By contestation, democratic theory means the freedom with which those in power are challenged in elections; and participation indicates how large a segment of the nation’s population takes part in elections, and especially whether the previously excluded do.

Let us first look at contestation in India. In the last ten years, India has had five national elections and government has changed hands four times: 1989, 1991, 1996 and 1998. In the 1999 elections, the incumbents have won for the first time since 1984, but that is only the visible tip of the iceberg. As we dig deeper, we find that more than fifty per cent incumbents – 276 out of 541 – lost their seats. Such results are impossible unless contestation is remarkably free.

What about participation? Despite the widespread prediction of voter apathy, the third election in three years registered a 59.5 per cent turnout. It appears that turnout in India has stabilized around 60 per cent, which by international standards is very high and given the frequency of elections in India, impressive. Weather and dramatic issues increase, or reduce, the turnout by a mere 1-2 percentage points.

More importantly, the social base of participation has distinctly shifted downwards – towards the countryside and the lower castes. Keeping up the trend inaugurated in 1989, the turnout in villages this time was 9 per cent higher than in urban India (about 61 per cent compared to roughly 52 per cent), the odds of a scheduled caste citizen voting were 2.3 per cent higher than the national average, and the biggest increases in voting rates took place in the tribal constituencies. If there is any apathy towards voting, it is in India’s larger cities and in their more affluent parts: Golf Links, Sundar Nagar and Vasant Vihar in Delhi, for example.

There is another conceptual way of summarizing India’s democratic record. It has what might be called a democratic surplus. Using an economic analogy, one can say that democracy in India has become a stock variable; it is no longer a flow variable. Most stable democracies in the world happen to be the rich industrialized countries, where military coups or civilian suspensions of democracy do not take place; hence the basic features of the polity remain more or less unchanged. In poorer countries where military coups can fundamentally alter the properties of the polity, as currently in Pakistan, democracy tends to be a flow variable. It can have huge ups and downs. India is poor but it has a stable democracy. All political, military and civilian actors believe that elections are the only way to rise to power. That is why democratic theorists recognize India as a striking exception to democratic theory: what it has politically achieved at low levels of income is what only richer countries have. It has broken the strong association between affluence and stable democracy.



A view of Indian democracy that so heavily relies on elections, and contestation and participation therein, is heavily criticized in some intellectual quarters, especially on the left, both traditional and postmodern. For intellectuals within this tradition, India’s democracy is a sham. In Jalal (1995), we have the most detailed statement of this view, though softer versions can also be found in Bonner (1994), Brass (1990), and Vanaik (1990).

According to this view, changes at the level of elections and elected institutions are of little consequence so long as the social and economic inequalities of civil society remain unaltered, and the non-elected state institutions – especially the bureaucracy and police – continue to act in an authoritarian manner vis-ŕ-vis the citizens, much as they used to when the British ruled. For democracy to function in a real, not formal, sense, there has to be greater prior equality among its citizens. A deeply unequal society can’t check the authoritarian functioning of the state structures and therefore can’t have a polity that is ‘really’ democratic.

‘Democratic authoritarianism’, Jalal argues, is the best way to describe India’s polity and there are, she says, no fundamental differences between India and Pakistan, except at the level of political superstructure. Both have profound socio-economic inequalities and both have inherited insensitive, colonial state structures in which the non-elected institutions easily trump the elected powers-that-be:

‘The simple dichotomy between democracy in India and military authoritarianism in Pakistan… collapses as soon as one delves below the surface phenomena of political processes. (P)ost-colonial India and Pakistan exhibit alternate forms of authoritarianism. The nurturing of the parliamentary form of government through the meticulous observance of the ritual of elections in India enabled a partnership between the political leadership and the non-elected institutions of the state to preside over a democratic authoritarianism.’ (Jalal, pp. 249-50).



Thus, even when meticulously observed, elections are basically a ‘ritual’. At best, they combine ‘formal democracy and covert authoritarianism’ (p. 99). If societies are unequal, the poor will inevitably be manipulated by the political elite:

‘Unless capable of extending their voting rights beyond the confines of the institutionalized electoral arenas to an effective struggle against social and economic exploitation, legal citizens are more likely to be handmaids of powerful political manipulators than autonomous agents deriving concrete rewards from democratic processes.’ (Jalal, p. 48)



In its theoretical anchorage, we should note, this kind of reasoning is not new. Commonly associated with Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mosca and Pareto, it has a long lineage lasting over a century. The arguments of Gramsci and Mosca are the most elaborate. Gramsci (1971) reasoned that so long as the economically powerful had control over the cultural means of a society – its newspapers, its education, its arts – they could establish a hegemony over the subaltern classes and essentially obfuscate the subalterns about their own interests. And Mosca (1939) argued that in democracies, given their many inequalities, domination of a small elite is inevitable.

Should we, then, consider socio-economic equality a precondition for democracy? In the leading texts of democratic theory (Dahl, 1998, 1989, and 1971), the two basic criteria of democracy – contestation and participation – do not require socio-economic equality; they may affect, or be affected by, inequality. Democratic theorists expect that if socially or economically unequal citizens are politically equalized and if the deprived constitute a majority of the electorate, their political preferences would, sooner or later, be reflected in who the rulers are and what public policies they adopt. By giving everyone equal vote irrespective of prior resource-endowments, universal franchise creates the potential mechanisms for undermining vertical dependence of the deprived over the privileged. In Europe, labour parties pushing for worker’s interests emerged in politics once franchise was extended to the working class.

Another well-known theoretical point is germane to a discussion of inequalities and democracy. If inequality, despite democratic institutions, comes in the way of a free expression of political preferences, such inequality makes a polity less democratic, but it does not make it undemocratic. So long as contestation and participation are available, democracy is a continuous variable (expressed as ‘more or less’), not a dichotomous variable (expressed as ‘yes or no’). Variations in degree and dichotomies should be clearly distinguished.



In the classic formulation of Robert Dahl, the United States was less of a democracy before the civil rights revolution of the mid-1960s, though it can in future be even more democratic if inequalities at the level of civil society come down further (Dahl, 1971, p. 29). Similarly, by allowing a great deal of contestation but restricting participation according to gender and class, England in the 19th century was less democratic than it is today, but it was democratic nonetheless, certainly by 19th century standards. Given contestation and participation, greater equality certainly makes a polity more democratic, but greater equality, in and of itself, does not constitute democracy. There is no democracy without elections.

I should add that the claims above are empirical, not normative. They are not a defence of inequalities, nor do they imply that having universal franchise is better than having equality. Relative economic equality, for example, may well be a value in itself, and we may wish to defend it as such. But we should note that economic equality and democracy are distinct categories. Societies with high levels of economic equality may well be quite authoritarian: South Korea and Taiwan until the late 1980s, China under Mao, and Singapore today come to mind. And societies with considerable economic inequality may have vibrant democracies: India and the US are both believed to have a Gini Coefficient of 0.4-0.45, as opposed to a more equal Gini Coefficient of 0.2-0.25 for the pre-1985 and authoritarian South Korea and Taiwan.1 Precisely because economic equality and democracy are analytically distinct, some people may quite legitimately be democrats but not believers in economic equality; others may believe in democracy as well as economic equality; and still others may be democrats but indifferent to the question of economic equality. A similar argument can also be made about social inequalities.



In light of the theoretical discussion above, what can we say about India. Has Indian democracy become more inclusive or not? And hasn’t greater inclusion reduced social, if not economic, inequalities? In case social inequalities have come down as a consequence of the political process, it will, in the theoretical terms proposed above, make India more democratic, even though an inability to reduce economic inequalities will not make India’s polity undemocratic.

Let us begin with a brief comparison of the caste composition of Indian politics today with the situation soon after independence. In the 1950s, India’s national politics was dominated by English-speaking and urban politicians trained in law. Most politicians came from the upper castes, and many leaders were trained abroad. Lower down the political hierarchy, an agrarian and ‘vernacular’ elite dominated local and state politics (Weiner, 1962), but even the lower-level political leadership tended to come from the upper castes in North India.



South India was different. Southern politicians were not only ‘vernacular’ but, as the 1950s evolved, they were also increasingly from the lower castes (Hardgrave, 1965; Subramaniam, 1999). By the 1960s, much of South India had gone though a relatively peaceful lower caste revolution: the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu as an anti-Brahmin party in the 1960s, and the Communist party, first in power in Kerala in 1957, was primarily based in the Ezhava community, a low caste of traditional toddy-tappers (Nossiter, 1982).2

In the 1980s and 1990s, a southern style plebeian politics has rocked North India. The names of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati – all ‘vernacular’ politicians who have risen from below – repeatedly make headlines. They are not united. Nonetheless, these and other lower caste leaders often make or break coalitions in power. Their total vote share continues to be lower than that for the Congress and BJP respectively, but it is enough to force concessions from the two largest parties. In the three national elections held between 1996 and 1999, the various parties explicitly representing lower castes, in the aggregate, received between 18 to 20 per cent of the national vote, as against 20-25 per cent for the BJP, and 23-29 per cent for the Congress party.3

Thus, disunity at the level of political parties notwithstanding, lower-caste politics has come to stay.4 It has, as often noted, not only introduced a new colouring of phrases, diction and styles in politics, but also pressed the polity in new policy directions. An enlarged affirmative action programme and an emerging restructuration of the power structure on the ground – street-level bureaucracies and police stations – are by far the most striking substantive success of such politicians. An extra 27 per cent reservation for the lower castes to central government jobs and educational seats has been both added by Delhi and approved by the Supreme Court. In the 1950s, only 22.5 per cent of such jobs were reserved, and more than three-fourths were openly competitive. Today, these proportions are 49.5 and 50.5 per cent respectively. At the state level, of course, the OBC quotas have been higher for a long time in southern India.



Indian politics thus has a new lower caste thrust, now prevalent both in the North as well as the South. Democracy has been substantially indigenized, and the shadow of Oxbridge has left India’s political centre-stage. All of this is a clear sign of declining social inequalities, though we do not yet have very good data on whether economic inequalities have also gone down.

None of the above should be construed to mean that India cannot be made still more democratic. There is no doubt that many battles for social dignity and equality for the lower castes still lie ahead, even in South India; and so do struggles for women and minorities. The emerging hostility between the upper OBCs and scheduled castes in several parts of the country is another example of an unfinished social transformation. However, there is no doubt left that democracy has already energized India’s plebeian orders. They have challenged the traditional forms of clientelistic politics and started fighting for greater power. As a consequence, India’s democracy is deeper, but many democratic battles still remain.




* This article is based on a recent talk given at the Asia Society, New York. Some of the arguments are developed at length in my ‘Is India Becoming More Democratic?’, Journal of Asian Studies, forthcoming, February 2000.

1.. The Gini Coefficient ranges between 0 and 1. The closer a country is to 1, the more unequal it is. Given similar Gini Coefficients, countries with higher per capita incomes (USA) would have far less poverty than those with lower per capita incomes (India).

2. In the two other South Indian states, Karnakata and Andhra Pradesh, a lower caste thrust in politics, though present, has been less pronounced.

3. Based on the Election Commission, 1996, pp. 40-51, and Election Commission, 1998, pp. 49-56. The 1999 data are provisional. The explicitly lower-caste parties are: JD (various versions), RJD, SP, BSP, JP, ADMK, DMK, MDMK, PMK, BJD, and RPI.

4. In the 1999 elections, it was widely predicted that the lower-caste parties in the North would be dealt a serious blow by the electorate. In UP, SP and BSP increased their share of seats, even as their votes marginally declined; in Bihar, RJD kept its vote share intact, but lost seats due to the BJP’s superior coalition-making strategy.




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