The trajectory of India’s Democracy and Contemporary Challenges: Prof Suhas Palshikar

( Prof Suhas Palshikar, Chief Editor, Studies in Indian Politics and Co-director, Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, delivered the inaugural lecture in the ‘Democracy Dialogues’ Series initiated by New Socialist Initiative.

In this lecture he attempted to trace the roots of the current moment of India’s democracy in the overall global journey of democracy, the extra-ordinarily ambitious and yet problematic foundational moment of Indian democracy and the many diversions India’s democracy has taken over time. He argued that unimaginative handling of the extra-ordinary ambition and Statist understanding of the ‘power-democracy’ dialectic formed the basis for easy distortions of democratic practice and that while populism and majoritarianism are the current challenges, they are by no means only special to the present and therefore, even as critique and course-correction of present political crisis is urgently required, a more long-term view of the trajectory of Indian democracy is necessary. Here follows a detailed summary of his presentation prepared by Dr Sanjay Kumar)


In his talk Prof Suhas Palshikar located the current state of democracy in India in a comprehensive framework which encompassed both the general characteristics of democracy, as well as the specific history and character of democracy in India. This provided a deeper understanding of the reasons for the current state of democracy in the country.

There is a tendency to see democracy as a linear progression. In reality, we see ups and downs, and there is no guarantee that if once established, democracy will continue. Democracy requires continuous willed action from its practitioners. This is so because the idea and practice of democracy have internal tension. There are three nodes of this tension. (i) Who are the demos, i.e. the people? This may appear straightforward, but in practice, the constitution of demos also involves exclusions. We saw how migrant workers were simply excluded from the ‘demos’ of the cities in the recent pandemic. People at the margins, and minorities can suffer threat of exclusion by the workings of the democracy itself. (ii) What do the demos do? While initiative and action by the people is one pole of this tension, the other is the demand of obedience, at least in some form, by all governments. This is the tension between active and passive citizenship. (iii) The third internal tension comes from the ordering principle. This can be seen in the rights of citizens versus ‘law and order’ demands of the state.

In the theory of democracy it is widely recognised that the Indian democracy has passed through a different path than the north Atlantic region. There the idea of a free individual came first through struggles against feudalism. And then, the people got constituted from individuals. In India this ordering appears reversed. Here, the people were first constituted as a nation during the freedom struggle. Another point of difference between the experience of democracy in India from elsewhere is how it has tried to deal with social diversity. The phrase ‘unity in diversity’ in the context of Indian experience is actually misleading. Retaining diversity while uniting is closer to reality. This means that in order to be an India you do not have to give up any other identity. This should be compared with experiences in Europe and the US. In the former the process of formation of the people resulted in a nuclear homogeneity. In the later, waves of migration and assimilation led to a pluralising homogeneity, as given by the ‘melting pot’ image.

The assertion of democracy in Indian freedom struggle and constitution was a challenge and an ambition. This is what Ambedkar says in his final address to the drafting committee. The architecture for a new India was created in the constitution, but the challenge was to bring it into reality. Unfortunately, the establishment of formal democracy was accompanied by a schizophrenia about democracy. There was more focus on creating state as a major apparatus under a set of assumptions which at best be called naïve. Masses were effectively demobilised. The result was a docile democracy. Our democracy became leadership centric, in which people were expected to follow cue from the leader. Hence, the first phase of post-independence democracy had hidden within it a number of problems. First was the twin problem of violence. There was a failure to understand and appropriately respond to private organised violence. On the other side was the use of violence by the state. With time, state actually became more and more violent. The second problem was the failure to integrate the most marginalised; the SCs, the STs and minorities. The third problem continuing from that period is our failure to make institutions which are both democratic and efficient. Hence, our institutional structure often fails the promise of democracy as well as effective governance.

It is best to come to the current state of Indian democracy through four decadal challenges to democracy. We are still living in the shadow of these challenges. These are 1. the Emergency in 1975, 2. pogrom of Sikhs in 1984, 3. demolition of Babri mosque, and 4. organised violence against Muslims in Gujarat 2002. The perpetrators of the Emergency were punished in 1977 elections. However, nothing was learnt from that experience institutionally. That is, our institutions did not develop any inherent opposition to unconstitutional authoritarianism and centralisation of state authority. For the other three decadal challenges, the perpetrators were not even punished. Hence there is no disincentive for doing such crimes.

If we go back to the politics 1980s and 1990s to understand where we are today, it was both a period expansion of democracy, while also its narrowing down. Yogendra Yadav, Christopher Jaffrelot and Sajay Kumar have described the former as a democratic upsurge. Excluded groups like minorities, women, STs and Dalits started voting in large numbers. Politics became more competitive, and there was a change in the social basis of political elites. A political consensus emerged for affirmative action for socially marginalised. However, there was also a narrowing down of the agenda of politics and rigging of political menu. When more and more marginalised sections begin participating in democracy, the democratic politics got depoliticised. It is in this period that the media starts setting the agenda, so that even politicians begin to talk the agenda set by it.

A consensus among dominant political players emerged on the three Ms, namely Mandal, Masjid and Market. The Mandal question disappears in 1993-94, as all players accept affirmative action. On the so-called masjid-mandir controversy there is no contrarian position in Indian politics. The Supreme Court has only given legal sanction to a political consensus. Regarding Market, all parties, including the Left in West Bengal accede to its demands.

The two longstanding challenges continued to be ignored. First is the challenge of creating a strong individual with a set of rights. The second is a commitment to India’s diversity. Failures on these two issues have made it only easy for current rulers.

Eight structural features characterise the contemporary state of politics in India. 1. unprecedented centralisation and personalisation of state authority. In the light of what is happening today, what Indira Gandhi did appears amateurish. 2. decay of federal politics, 3. unprecedented abdication of its role by the judiciary. ADM Jabalpur at least had to make an attempt to justify its abdication. Not even a justification is given for the current abdication. 4. beginning of the politicisaiton of armed forces, 5 misuse of investigative agencies, 6 complete subordination of the entire bureaucracy, 7 Irrelevance of political parties, and 8. closure of all popular resistances.

Given these structural elements, the current moment is nor a routine diversion. It should be seen as a moment of hijack of democracy. We also need to appreciate two processes, which give strength to these structural elements. These two processes are (a) populism and (b) majoritarianism.

Indira Gandhi was also called populist, populist leaders were always there. The three elements of populism are (a) an idea of people as an anti something, which can be anti elite, or anti-minority, (b) a moralistic idea of politics; seeing it as a war between good and bad, so that your adversary is not just a competitor but a bad element who needs to be eliminated, and (c) disregard of institutions.

Survey of popular political opinions by Lokniti and Azim Premji University throw some interesting and disturbing results. There is an attraction for populism, but this attraction is not overwhelming. In fact populism is not so much attractive to people, as it is to politicians.

Majoritarianism is always an issue in elections, because elections are one way to legitimise a majority. Majoritarianism reduces democracy to electoral politics. Popular opinion data regarding majoritarianism is worrying. When it is asked if the will of the majority community should be accepted, then one person in three agreed in 2000. By 2015 this proportion had increased to one in two. Hence, the majority of Indians probably agree that the demands put in the name of majority community are automatically legitimate. At the current moment majoritarianism justified through three arguments. First is the argument of the hurt sentiment of the majority community. Second is branding of dissent or difference as anti-national, and the third puts nation above democracy.

Hence we see that only BJP is not anti-democratic. Preference for anti-democracy is spread out in the political class, and has widespread popular acceptance. An interesting recent book by Levitsky and Ziblatt is titled ‘How Democracies Die?’ Democracies are eroded from within. We are witnessing this process in India.

Given our current situation, future scenarios can only be bad or worse. The two big questions about immediate future are these.

1. Will there be a victory of a higher ideology of exclusion, i.e. will India become a Hindu majoritarian society. This perhaps will not happen for another decade. So, we probably have some time.

2. Will there be a complete taming of politics of resistance? We are staring at this prospect today. Spaces for a simple politics of resistance are drying out fast.

Prof Palshikar’s presentation was followed by a lively question answer session. Some of the issues discussed in the Q&A session were related to the role of social and cultural factors in democracy, reasons for the failure of popular mobilisation after Emergency, global spread of majoritarian politics and its relationship to neo-liberal political economy, privatisation of development, consociational democracy, and vernacularisation of Hindutva.

[ Democracy Dialogues Series

The idea behind beginning this series is basically to initiate as well as join the ongoing conversation which is going on around this theme in academic as well as activist circles.

One sees that the very idea of democracy which has taken deep roots across the world, has come under scanner for various reasons. We have been witness to the ascent of rightwing forces, demogogues via the same democratic route and also the anamolous sounding situation that deepening and spread of democracy among hitherto marginalised sections – has not led to commensurate percolation of liberal democratic values.

Coming to India, there have been valid concerns about rise of authoritarian streak among Indians and how it has helped strengthen BJP’s hard right turn. The strong support for democracy here is accompanied by increasing fascination towards majoritarian, authoritarian politics here. In fact, we would like to state that a vigorous electoral democracy here has become a vehicle for religious counterrevolution.

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