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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 August 2007, 03:41 GMT 04:41 UK
India's model democracy
By Mukul Kesavan

India flag being made
India is a unique democracy
Considering that when India set out to be democratic, successful democracies tended to be white, rich, Christian and with a single dominant language, its success over 60 years is significant in two ways.

First, it demonstrated beyond argument that poverty, massive illiteracy and diversity on a sub-continental scale were not arguments against democracy, they were arguments for it.

Second, India's Republican democracy is premised on a national myth of pluralism, not the standard nationalist invocation of a shared history, a single language and an assimilationist culture.

Important lesson

If we confine ourselves to South Asia, the most striking difference between India and the other countries in the region is that Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are countries formally owned by their dominant religious communities.

Thus, Nepal is a "Hindu" kingdom, Pakistan and Bangladesh are "Islamic" republics and Sri Lanka's constitution gives Buddhism and Sinhala, the religion and language of the majority of Sri Lankans, the "foremost" place in the life of that country.

An important democratic lesson from the recent history of South Asia is that a democracy that creates two different kinds of citizen rapidly evolves into something else.

India didn't go down this road for reasons of history.

A homeless man in India
India may be poor but it has remained a democracy
Pluralist nationalism in the 19th century was invented as an answer to the specific challenges of contemporary colonialism. It was founded on the claim that the anti-colonial Indian National Congress could speak for the nation-in-the-making because its membership included representatives of all of India's human species.

The challenge of representing India to a hostile colonial state and then the trauma of Partition committed the republican state to pluralist democracy.

Pluralism, a stratagem born of weakness (the early nationalist elite had no other way of demonstrating that they represented anyone but themselves), became the cornerstone of Indian political practice, because it legitimised the compromises essential for keeping hundreds of jostling identities aboard the good ship India.

This was the ultimate political goal: to keep the diversity of a subcontinent afloat in a democratic ark. Everything else was negotiable.

Balancing of interests

The political culture of the republic consisted of the balancing of special interests, procrastination, equivocation, pandering, tokenism and selective affirmative action: in a word, democratic politics.

Gender, language, religious identity, class and caste were all pressed into India's political mill, but no single identity or principle was used consistently enough to satisfy its champions.

It is a political culture that worked, approximately but demonstrably.

Not only did it work, it allowed Indians a worldview born out of their own political experience.

A protest meeting in India
The reason India is so important to the history and practice of democracy is its success in making a system of representative government work in a bewilderingly diverse country
For example, when a "people" elsewhere asks for self-determination (the Kurds, the Eelam Tamils, the Basques) an Indian should ask, what for?

If the point of self-determination is to allow a "People" to become a hegemonic majority in its own right, an Indian is entitled to say that whatever its rhetorical power, self-determination does not seem like an emancipatory or interesting or original political idea.

If a state with a majority of Kurds or Tamils is to be premised on Kurdishness or Tamilness, better that it not exist at all because Indians know from their own history that pluralist democracies can be worked despite terrible violence and they also know where ethnic nationalisms lead.

The reason India is so important to the history and practice of democracy is its success in making a system of representative government work in a bewilderingly diverse country.

This achievement liberates the idea of democracy from specific cultural contexts and subverts a certain sort of political argument.

For example, to excuse the failed occupation of Iraq, some western opinion-formers cite the presence of three distinct communities, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. A country odd enough to be home to such a variety of peoples is, in their minds, an artificial state with arbitrary boundaries, doomed to disintegrate.

Under this argument, Iraq cannot make it as a democracy or even a nation because it is too poor or too fractious or too diverse.

If India didn't exist, no-one would have the imagination to invent it.

Possible threat

In the absence of India, the prejudices about the non-West that Western policy makers and pundits peddle for a living, would pass for wisdom.

The only foreseeable threat to India's democratic future is the possibility that a political party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might ride a wave of majoritarian sentiment to become the default party of government.

Hindu nationalists demonstrate on Valentine's Day
Hindu nationalists pose a danger to India's plurality
This would threaten India's carefully built pluralist democracy because the BJP, despite its nativist rhetoric, ironically favours a European nationalist idiom, where the nation is home to a majority people.

In India's case, this would be the Hindus. If the BJP and its ideological preferences become entrenched in the Indian state, the ethnic violence that has torn Sri Lanka apart could be replicated on a sub-continental scale.

That is unlikely to happen.

A BJP-led coalition governed India for an entire parliamentary term and failed to make the demographic majority of Hindus a political reality. The republic's statutes and the rulings of their authorised interpreter, the Supreme Court, make it nearly impossible for political parties to fundamentally alter the basic structure of the constitution.

Besides, the diversity of the electorate forces India's ruling coalitions into such complex electoral arithmetic that the pluralism so crucial to the Republic's well-being is safe for the foreseeable future.

Mukul Kesavan is a historian and writer




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