The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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There are enough grounds to be proud of the Indian democracy, and also enough reasons to be seriously concerned about its future health

National pride is an essential ingredient of patriotism. But the pride has to be based on something substantial. Otherwise patriotism runs the risk of becoming jingoism. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is justified in telling his German audience about the achievements of Indian democracy. It is clear to any observer that India does not fulfil some of the necessary conditions for the functioning of a democracy. It has low literacy and high poverty. Yet it has a functioning democracy. This democracy and its functioning may not satisfy the purist, but it has succeeded in nurturing some of the fundamental freedoms required for a civilized existence. The founding fathers of the Indian republic were aware of the many lacunae in Indian society for the success of an experiment in democracy. But they decided to take a risk in favour of freedom. They were convinced that democracy, backed by universal adult franchise, was the best form of government. If Indians were indeed unprepared, they should face the challenge and, over time, prepare themselves for democracy. Like Mr Vajpayee, most educated Indians will take pride in the fact that except for the 18 months of the Emergency, democracy in India has survived, and functions. But many would add the caveat, just about.

It has become a belief in India and the prime minister echoes this that the successful holding of elections is the real test of a democracy. Elections are only one sign of a vibrant democracy. In India, elections are marred by features that are inconceivable in a mature democracy: violence, bloc voting, voting along religious and caste lines and so on. Individual choice, the basis of democracy, is often absent in the way that democracy in India operates. There is also enough evidence now to suspect that money plays an important part in determining electoral choice. More than this, time and again in the legislatures, the representatives of the people grossly violate the spirit of democracy. It can be argued that these features are a fallout of the special conditions of underdevelopment on which a Westminster-type democracy was implanted in India. Sections of society which were previously outside political society, except for being voters, have entered the democratic system as active participants. They are not educated in the norms and conventions of democracy. The deepening of democracy in India is thus related to the transgression of the spirit of democracy. The Indian political system articulates this paradox.

The prime minister has also very rightly stressed to an international audience the pluralist character of Indian society and the role democratic institutions have played in preserving that character. But he must be conscious of the threats to this pluralist character. Religious fundamentalism is the most serious of these threats. Indian pluralism has lost some of its sheen after the pogrom in Gujarat.

There are enough grounds to be proud of the achievements of Indian democracy. There are also enough reasons to be seriously concerned about its future health.

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