Democracy's Resilience: Tradition, Modernity, and Hybridity in India

By Mitra, Subrata K. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Democracy's Resilience: Tradition, Modernity, and Hybridity in India


Mitra, Subrata K., Harvard International Review


Indian democracy is puzzling. Many democracy advocates and human rights activists around the world--and in India itself--find it hard to reconcile the country's democratic achievements with its tragic failures. India's democratic success makes the country appear deviant when contrasted to the regularity with which post-colonial democracies fail. At the same time, India's failures undermine the country's claim to be the world's largest democracy. With such contradictory features, India can be viewed as a counter-factual challenge to general models of democratic transition and consolidation. What makes Indian democracy work, and why does it fail sometimes? What significance does India's counter-factual democracy hold for general theories of democracy transition and consolidation?

The Context of a Counter-Factual Democracy

The simultaneity of democratic success and failure in India is not an essential feature of the country's specific culture and context. Instead, both are the outcome of a combination of India's specific circumstances and adroit strategic choices by politics-savvy, elected elites, many of whom have risen from the ranks. Working closely with a professional bureaucracy, army, and judiciary, India's new political elites have created a hybrid political system that has become a vital, robust, and flexible hinge holding the modern state and traditional society together. It is an ongoing process that has not yet spread across the whole country.

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India's democratic record is mixed. Over the years, sporadic but terrible attacks on members of religious minorities have put a question mark on the quality of Indian democracy. India's democratic image has taken a further battering with the desecration of places of worship, pogroms--sometimes in collusion with employees of the state--and the persistence of deep pockets of poverty. Violent separatist movements in Jammu and Kashmir and parts of northeastern India are further challenges to the credibility and effectiveness of Indian democracy. However, irrefutable indicators of a vibrant democratic process off-set these negative images, balancing the failures of India's democracy. Elections have been held almost continuously since independence in 1947, leading to major political changes. Vigorous parliamentary debate, an active civil society, and an alert media have generally kept the government accountable. Efforts have also increased to expand democracy down to the level of the localized village community through several innovative constitutional and legislative measures. These measures promote the upward mobility of the lower social classes and women.

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The resilience of Indian democracy appears to beat the trend of other transitional societies. In comparison to the vast majority of young democracies emerging from British colonial rule, such as Pakistan, which fell by the wayside in the 1950s, India has kept its course. In addition, India's transition into democracy was different than that of other nations. Modern democratic societies emerged within the Western world after violent transitions from feudalism to industrial nations. India, in contrast, sought to do this the other way around. In 1947, newly independent India emerged from over a century of British colonial rule under a largely peaceful anti-colonial movement, after which the departing British handed power to the leaders of the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru.

With a stagnant economy, mass poverty, and a deeply embedded social hierarchy, one wonders why Indian democracy did not meet the same tragic fate as Pakistan, with which the country shared similar points of departure. An overwhelmingly large percentage of its population--illiterate, poor, and steeped in subsistence agriculture--was suddenly catapulted to the world of modern competitive politics. India, despite such conditions, nevertheless sought democratic consolidation and industrialization. …

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Democracy's Resilience: Tradition, Modernity, and Hybridity in India
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