Monday, March 2, 2009

Why is India a democracy?

Over the weekend, I started reading Ramchandra Guha's mammoth and magnificent history of post-independence India, 'India After Gandhi'. I have barely scratched the surface of the book and already I find myself picking up pieces of my brain scattered all around, because (holy cow!) it's blown away!

Here is the first question that stopped me in my tracks: How come India is a democracy at all?

Guha writes in his Prologue (evocatively titled 'Unnatural Nation') - "A recent statistical analysis of the relationship between democracy and development in 135 countries found that 'the odds against democracy in India were extremely high'. Given its low level of income and literacy, and its high levels of social conflict, India was 'predicted as a dictatorship during the entire period' of the study. Since it was a democracy through that entire period (barring two years), there was only one way to characterise India: as 'a major outlier'."

Mukul Kesavan, writing for BBC News, puts this more bluntly. "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".

I could readily find tens of research papers around the underlying factors that are conducive to the emergence of a democracy. This summary from NYU for instance, shows some interesting charts illustrating the relationship of wealth of countries and their probability of being democratic (wealthier countries are much more likely to be democracies). It asks the interesting question of whether countries are more likely to become democratic as they become rich, or whether countries that become democratic are more likely to stay democratic if they are rich.

And there are many others where these came from. I read all this, and shake my head in wonder of the impoverishedly, diversely, noisily, garishly, and defiantly democratic spectacle that is India. Mukul Kesavan, again, says it best for me - "If India didn't exist, no one would have the imagination to invent it."


  1. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment on this book.

  2. Finally, you've gotten around to this. I'm excited. I feel like one of those names on Vividh Bharathi's Aap Ki Farmaish finally having their request being played.

  3. ... not just have I gotten to it, I have realized that this is not a single blogpost book. It needs to be done justice.

  4. Democracy is sustained if homogenous groups of people feel that they are represented, are heard and have the freedom to maintain their identity. I think designing states around languages was a truly smart idea where the homogenous people got a way to be heard and represented at a national level (of course it now has its own problems where increasingly we are finding so many local parties that none is able to emerge winner at the center).

    It is for exactly the opposite reason that there is so much unrest in the North East - no true representation.