Last updateThu, 02 Apr 2015 6pm

#Franchise: How Indian democracy was built around the inclusion of its poor.

As the first anniversary of the biggest general election in history approaches, Supriyo Chaudhuri explores India's unique brand of democracy.

That India opted to be democratic, and remained so, goes to the credit of Pandit Nehru, India's first Prime Minister.

Nehru was a democratic man, in rhetoric and in practice, and despite his enormous popularity and stature inside and outside the country he successfully avoided the entrapment of 'Big Man' syndrome, which afflicted so many of his contemporary leaders of new nations.

It was a great exercise in imagination, and logistics (Ramchandra Guha talks about this in his masterly treatise ‘India after Gandhi’) to get an enormous, diverse, largely poor and mostly illiterate country on the democratic path.

It defied most theories about democracy that political scientists propound - that democracy is mostly a rich country thing - and became the crowning glory for India, and indeed a very convenient excuse for all its failings.

At a time when Indian democracy, along with democracies all around the world, is facing existential dangers from the forces of globalisation and the aftershocks of the Great Recession, it is worth looking at India one more time and perhaps go beyond Nehru's commitment, which was indeed whole-hearted and unwavering, and try to understand why democracy became a given, almost a part of the Indian political environment.

And, here, I shall argue, we cannot ignore Gandhi's influence.

The contribution of Gandhi in the Indian political process, if we can distill it to a single thing, is to open the gates of political participation to those who were previously excluded.

The peasants, the poor, the untouchables, the labourers, those who could not read or write and who were too busy and too grateful to be just surviving, were all brought in to the Indian National Movement by Gandhi.

He mobilised Indian villages against the cities.  Before him, Indian politics was dominated by the English speaking Middle-Classes, conducting their business in a gentlemanly manner but primarily restricting it to the matters of their own concerns, positions and privileges.

Gandhi was disruptive, and many resented his influence and blamed him for lawlessness.

But, he, undeterred, repeatedly took up causes of poor people, the right to make salt from sea water being one, and the rights of labourers and landless peasants, often against the same privileged people and landowning classes who dominated Indian politics up to that point (one must also remember that the support for Pakistan as a separate country came initially from large Muslim landowners, who feared the socialistic tendencies of the Congress leadership).

And, indeed, he built the Indian National Movement around a non-violent ethos, where mass participation, rather than political strategies of the elite, was the defining factor.

It was indeed messy, slow and even indeterminate, but, true to his commitment to right means rather than the right end, Gandhi propagated a value system very different from similar Independence Struggles (or struggles of emancipation) that we would see elsewhere in the world.

"Mass Participation, along with non-violence and the commitment to means, defined the political culture of modern India"

This, the mass participation, along with non-violence and the commitment to means, defined the political culture of modern India. 

Indeed, this is a gross generalisation and I accept that these ideals were only imperfectly followed on. 

However, this defined a structure where not the elite, but a considerably larger mass of people defined the political process.

In fact, as the academic Devesh Kapur argues, the Indian Professional Elite, fearful that they would lose their privilege, often voted with their feet after Independence - which, as an interesting contrast, the Pakistani Landed Elite could not do, and which has consequently obstructed the democratic process in that country ever since.

In summary, what I am arguing is that there are no surprises that India is poor and democratic.

India is democratic because it is poor, and because its’ political heritage is built around the inclusion of the poor.

This is not a country which was led into independence by a small group of brilliant men or revolutionaries (in fact, such elite leadership may be one of the key problems in the communist doctrine) - but rather by an idea that united a broad base of people, and which its elite actually mostly resisted.

To see India's democracy as a gift from Nehru, notwithstanding his vision, is casting this unique feat into our usual narrative, an act of dangerous omission.

This is the narrative we must now revisit, when we are intent on creating a model of development-driven by the elite, and reappraise the idea of Mahatma against the top-down models such as China's which we have now come to admire.

- Supriyo Chaudhuri works in global Higher Education, and is engaged in various educational projects in UK, Asia and Africa.  He is passionate about innovation and reform in Higher Education.  He organises events on Education Innovation in London and writes a popular blog on global education.  He is an alumni of University College London.



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