The Republic of India was created in 1950 and held its first elections in 1951. Universal suffrage (for adults) was adopted from the beginning, with contestation between 14 political parties. India is a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature, the Rajya Sabha (upper house) consists of members appointed by the president and state legislatures. The Lok Sabha is the lower house, elected by the people. Until the end of the 1977, a single party, Congress, dominated parliament. Starting from 1967, the Congress party headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to make amendments to the Constitution in order to nullify Supreme Court judgements. The end of a war with Pakistan as well as the 1973 oil crisis caused economic problems in India, leading to a rise in political opposition to the Congress party. In 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of emergency, upon PM Gandhi’s advice. All civil liberties were suspended as Gandhi descended with a series of political crackdowns arresting protestors, banning political parties, and arresting political opponents within and outside of her party. This state of emergency was approved every six months (as required by the Constitution) until 1977, when elections were held again and Congress faced its first electoral defeat. Since then, the strength of this hegemonic party has weakened, with other national and regional based parties gaining significant favor in years since. In this paper, we will look at India’s democratic system since 1977, and compare it conceptualizations of democracy by Dahl and Prezowski as well as the Polity IV rating of Indian democracy. I will also talk about how well democracy in India has worked for its citizens by looking at persisting problems in the system.
In the 2014 elections, there were 35 parties that won at least one seat in the Indian Parliament. Around 730 political parties are recognized by the election commission. These small parties often represent the interests of members of a particular region, religion, or caste. Public contestation is surely present in India, along with universal suffrage, India would fall into Dahl’s description of a Polyarchy, characterized by high levels of liberalization and inclusiveness. Of his Eight Institutional Guarantees, the first four: freedom to form and join organizations, freedom of expression, right to vote, and eligibility for public office are present in Indian democracy. The Polity IV Country Report for India (2010) scores political participation at a 9, however writes about the complexity of this participation and the many problems it has caused. The Congress Party was able to represent various interests of Indian society and brought it into a centralized institutional framework. The report writes “While the institutions of Indian democracy remain strong… in recent years they have been increasingly challenged by the centrifugal nature of Indian society and the institutional decay of the post-Congress party system.” (Polity IV) The strength of national parties has given way to the rise of smaller regional parties that put national interest second to their own. In addition the parties have been characterized with rampant corruption, “vehicles for individual ambition” (Polity IV), and factionalism. The presence of many parties creates the need for a coalition system, and India is moving toward a two-coalition system. However, the political leaders frequently go from one party to another, and parties themselves regularly change coalitions. This leads to the conclusion that while inclusiveness and liberalization are present at high levels in India, the system itself is so damaged by tensions in the fractious coalitions as well as the lack of benevolent leaders in these democratically elected parties that democratic stability is not present in India. Both general and political illiteracy and a middle class of apathetic voters leads to the persistence of these problematic leaders and parties despite their clear track record of doing harm.
Dahl’s 6th Institutional Guarantee, the presence of alternative sources of information is necessary for citizens to be able to signify their presence. Unfortunately, India has consistently scored poorly in press freedom. Freedom House categorizes press freedom status as only “partly free.” In 2005, the Right to Information Act was passed, giving any citizen the right to request information from any public authority which must respond within 30 days. However, due to the broad restrictions in this act, the majority of the requests have been blocked. Additionally, the 6 national political parties have simply refused to provide information despite the law applying to them as well, according to a 2013 ruling by the Central Information Commission. Journalists who have called out Hindu nationalist groups for crimes as heinous as sex trafficking, and others who wrote about how the government ministry has discriminated against Muslims have had charges filed against them. While the majority of these do not end in convictions, the use of authority to silence journalists is very powerful and can cause others to withhold information in the future due to the risk of criminal charges. In the militarized zone of Jammu and Kashmir, authorities have shut down many newspapers and limited the access to internet services. Hindi news channel NDTV had been told to cease broadcasting for 24 hours after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting found a problem with their reporting during an attack on an Indian Air Force Base by militants. PM Modi has encouraged senior government officials to follow his steps and give very limited access to press, he himself has only done a few interviews during his time as Prime Minister. Additionally, a handful of journalists have even been killed by Hindu nationalist groups and others during times of great political violence.
I use Dahl’s conceptualization of democracy in relation to India because it offers a comprehensive selection of criteria that highlight different aspects of true democracy. If I were to use Przeworski’s conceptualization, India’s democracy would seem relatively strong. This conceptualization is mainly to distinguish between democracy and dictatorship, and therefore uses a minimalistic conceptualization of democracy. Contestation (determined by ex-ante uncertainty, ex-post irreversibility and repeatability) to fill government offices is what defines a democracy. As long as the chief executive and the legislature are elected, and there is more than one party, the regime is considered democratic. India is easily considered democratic by these measures, as it is according to Dahl’s rules except for the emphasis on freedom of press. Polity IV’s measures are a complement to this as well. They write in their 2010 report that while the elections in India are extremely free and fair, “political violence continues to be a common feature of electoral politics in India.” Additionally, while the president is formally listed as the executive power, in reality the role of the executive lands with the Prime Minister. Due to the presence of coalitions in Parliament, India’s prime ministers have had to let go of the values of their parties in order to maintain a majority faction in parliament. This acts as a strong accountability system, as the power of a majority is more beneficial to a party than strongly pursuing ideological goals.
While India is without doubt a democracy, the largest in the world, in fact, the lack of development, rise and persistence of inequality and illiteracy, and the divisive nature of the communalism in its politics has shown that democracy does not necessarily lead to economic development, nor make the country better off. There are serious foundational problems within the country that need fixed, mainly the apathy to corruption and emphasis on religious or caste identity rather than a single strong national identity has allowed many problems to persist and worsen. The lack of literacy allows the “bad” politicians to continue to be reelected, since people will simply vote based on who is more sympathetic to their religion or ethnicity. I would add conditions to Dahl’s conceptualization of democracy, such as the decrease of political violence after a democratic transition, and decrease of inequality, since if the people are being represented fairly, they should become better off. Until this starts to occur in India, I would say democracy is hurting the citizens, allowing political elites to play games with the citizens to maintain power, as they divide and conquer on superficial terms making the rest of the country continuously shed violence on one another.
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