Modern societies emerge out of their primitive forms. As India enters its 65th year as a republic, it is not what it used to be for the past several centuries: ruled by kings and nawabs, brutalised by Hindu orthodoxies of caste and sati, or dependent on agriculture. “India has changed more in last six decades than in six previous centuries,” said president Pranab Mukherjee on the eve of the Republic Day last year, adding: “It will change more in the next ten years than in the previous sixty.”
The motor of change is democracy, or the republic’s politics reaffirmed every five years through the conscious act of voting. Democracy refers to demokratia—a political system that began in 5th to 4th centuries BC when the people (demos) of Athens revolted against the dynasties of tyrants and established their own kratos (rule). Over past decades, democracy in India has emerged as a revolt against caste and other social inequalities, empowering millions of dalits, minorities and women. India still subjugates its women, but it will change as more than a million women, elected to political nurseries of panchayati raj, are about to alter the balance of gender relations.
The Indian republic is a Greek city state in microcosm, whose citizens interact with philosophical concepts every day, acquiring new understandings of liberty and rationality. As it matures, it inculcates egalitarian ideals in its citizens who in turn guard demokratia, the republic’s dharma, or creed. The egalitarian Indian defends the order, defeating Indira Gandhi after the Emergency when democracy appeared to be failing, or producing an Aam Aadmi Party when corruption of an industrial scale emerged. The republic is nurtured from below. It just gave Kashmiri secessionists a recurring opportunity to prove their worth through the ballot option of NOTA, none of the above.
In primitive societies, consensus emanated from similarities of beliefs and identities; in modern India consensus is derived from differences and moderated by media, political parties, voters, and the judiciary. The voter is the sane oracle, inaugurating an era of coalition politics in 1989 and shifting the polity towards federalism, in tune with the diversity of India. From the post-Emergency rise of anti-Congress parties to the AAP, the republic births new parties. It secures the confidence of minorities. According to a BJP research, India has seen the emergence of “smaller Muslim parties” that are determining outcomes in states from Assam to Kerala. Indian polity is ripe where any new party could transform into a countrywide behemoth by practising simple politics: electing leaders through organisational polls. There is space for all, as no party has got 50 per cent votes.
In some way, parties are dying, or being obscured, eclipsed and forgotten. The Congress is forgotten in UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi and many states; the BJP was reduced to irrelevance as a national opposition until Narendra Modi rose from below; the Rashtriya Janata Dal was dumped; and demokratia caught up with communists in West Bengal in 2011. It happens due to parties’ failure to abide by the republic’s dharma: more politics, more democracy. Politics has its own independent dignity. More parties could thrive if their funds were audited and if they held polls to elect party leaders or used secret ballot to elect chief ministers or Prime Minister. If the Congress practised politics, US-style primaries to elect party leaders could herald a revolution.
Among democracies, some are religious states such as Britain whose societies are overwhelmingly secular; some are secular states like the US and India whose societies are predominantly religious. Religious neutrality, established first by Akbar, characterises the Indian state. The founders—Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar—wrote an array of liberties into the Constitution: equality of rights, multi-party elections, free press, individual freedoms, rule of law, independent judiciary, etcetera. Speaking at Oxford in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that the founders were “greatly influenced by the ideas associated with the age of Enlightenment in Europe.” The political and religious freedoms Indians enjoy would not be possible if the British hadn’t arrived in India.
Democracy is defined as the majority rule, but the majority is of the people, not of communities. For those who feed pessimism among minorities, the day is not far when India will see a Muslim prime minister, as religion will become irrelevant. For now, a Muslim politician is yet to be born who could read the republic’s political mind, the way Barack Obama read the American mind. There are reasons: Muslims must shed the fear of the BJP; the politics of secularism and reservation must be defeated by effective policing and through job creation by people.
Primitive societies were dependent on agriculture. In a modern nation, while the agricultural output grows, its share in the gross domestic product must decline, accompanied by growth in knowledge sectors like biotechnology and financial services. Once seen by the West as the land of snake charmers, India is transformed into an information technology destination today. However, it is an inward-looking mystical civilisation, failing to grasp notions of power. India contemplated sending troops to Iraq in 2003, but succumbed to a perennial weakness to comprehend its place in the international state system. There were military roles in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives that indicate India could exercise hard power abroad.
Amid problems, the republic is maturing, aided by the Supreme Court which forced candidates to declare assets and criminal antecedents, disqualified elected representatives upon conviction in criminal cases, and enshrined negative voting through NOTA. If T N Seshan alone could retrieve autonomy of the election commission, it appears the Central Bureau of Investigation and other government institutions could cease being the ruling party’s mistress. At the heart of the country’s politics is the sane oracle, the voter: the elderly who walk to polling booths, tribesmen who defy Naxalites to vote, women who stand with men, youth who secure their aspirations in ballots. Of 790 million voters, 120 million are 18-23-year-olds,the first-time voters who must establish a relationship with people, not leaders, to secure the republic for their next generations.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research
Institute, Washington DC.