India's Democracy Is All Grown Up

The first Indian election in 1952 was described by some as the biggest gamble in the history of democracy. The current one is merely the biggest in the history of democracy. 
India's election campaigns have come a long way since the 1950s. Photographer: Evans/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Indians will learn Friday the outcome of the country's 16th national election. A new government, probably different from the coalition that has enjoyed power for the last decade, will be entrusted with the vast responsibility of shaping the material and moral lives of one-fifth of humanity -- a society being churned and transformed faster than at any time in its history by consumer, technological and demographic revolutions, and indeed by democracy itself.

In August, Indian democracy will turn a weather-beaten 67 -- an astonishing validation of the leap of faith made by the nation's founding fathers in 1947, when they decided that the logical follow-up to colonial rule was a secular democratic republic and universal adult suffrage. But just as a 67-year-old person remembers many stages of his or her life, so, too, Indian democracy has had many phases and progressions on its long march.

Here, then, is a short, splintered history of Indian democracy. Let's start with the smallest meaningful unit in our frame: the five years since the last election cycle.

Even at that small remove, it's clear that Indian democracy is vastly more networked than it used to be. The widening reach of cable television and the Internet, as well as the revolution in personal communications brought about by mobile phones, have made for "imagined communities." It's not just young people who speak to one another on social media. Politicians are suddenly much more accessible, too -- and targetable.

Even five years ago, Indian democracy had hot spots -- mainly urban centers and more developed states -- as well as black holes, where information from the world did not penetrate and even democracy took on a largely feudal cast. Newspapers and television controlled public discourse, and what they chose to ignore, the country did not debate. Today, a single tweeted picture or YouTube video spreads like wildfire on the Internet, meaning that many more people can participate in the national conversation. Television has flattened the differences between city and village, rich and poor, raising expectations across the board.

It's a new environment ideal for a presidential-style election in which a party invests all its energies in one candidate: in this case, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi. Modi himself (Twitter followers: 4 million) is probably the Indian politician who best understands the power of social media and the Internet, and his election machine includes a large Internet force, including, some reports say, a 2 million-strong volunteer squad that fights battles for him online.

Ten years ago, Indian democracy was younger, but the electorate was less youthful, its expectations more modest. For the 2014 election, more than 100 million voters were eligible to vote for the first time, greatly recasting the tenor and themes of the election. This infusion of new blood has been good for Indian democracy.

These first-time voters are no older than 23 -- all born after the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991. Their material expectations are worlds away from those of their parents' generation, which often decries their worldliness and cynicism. But the youths of India are also more impervious to the temptations of stridently religious politics, which had a long run in the '80s and '90s. Their eagerness to vote is one of the reasons voter turnout in this election was more than 68 percent (the highest in any Indian election). This "demographic dividend" is also what will present the next government with a headache bigger than any other, as it strives to integrate nearly 1 million new entrants into the workforce every month.

Should the relatively youthful Modi (he is 63) win the election, as both trolls and polls almost unanimously predict, he would become India's first prime minister to be born after independence.

As compared to 20 years ago, Indian democracy seems more resistant today to the virus of religious provocation and majoritarianism.

In 1994, it had just been badly unbalanced by religious tensions and political apathy. When a mob of belligerent Hindu rioters brought down the Babri Masjid mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya -- considered by Hindus to be the birthplace of Rama, the legendary king -- in 1992, the secular cast of Indian democracy was knocked out of shape. The use of inflammatory religious rhetoric turned the right-wing BJP from a fringe group to the main opposition party in the '80s and early '90s, a position it then consolidated to win a majority in Parliament for the first time in 1999.

It seemed that India might take a permanent majoritarian turn, dividing its citizens into first and second classes, as some of the other, smaller nation-states of south Asia had already done. Today, it would seem that India has ridden out that phase. Even Modi, once an unapologetic chauvinist who frequently made jeering remarks about Muslims in election speeches, has recognized that the politics of religious incitement only go so far, and he is trying to win this election on a development plank.

Looking back 30 years, Indian democracy might see itself as much more sentimental and naive than it is today. In 1984, the country was thrown into crisis when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was suddenly assassinated by her bodyguards. In the election that followed, the ruling Congress party put up as its next prime ministerial candidate her son, the political novice Rajiv Gandhi. The sympathy wave for Rajiv among voters resulted in a landslide, with the Congress winning 401 out of 508 seats. That effectively cemented the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, leading to Rajiv's wife, Sonia, eventually leading the party. Their son Rahul is being projected as the party's prime ministerial candidate.

Today's Indian voter is much more resistant to democracy's idea of the divine right to rule. When Rahul speaks earnestly of "women's empowerment," he's mocked mercilessly because people see it as one of India's most powerful men trying to cast himself as an outsider trying to fight "the system." To them, Rahul is the system, which is one of the reasons the Congress party -- which continues to be excessively dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty -- is likely to be booted out of power this week.

Speaking of systems, 40 years ago, India had a most unusual democratic system that has disappeared forever. In an influential essay written in 1964, the political scientist Rajni Kothari called it the "Congress system." For more than three decades, starting in 1947, the Congress party was so far ahead of its competitors in national elections that all other parties were reduced to pressure groups, and genuine opposition to the policies of the day came from factions within the party.

In those 40 years since, Indian democracy has become vastly more diverse, especially as lower-caste groups, historically never close to political power, have gradually tuned in to the music of democracy and used the ballot box to bring about what the scholar Christophe Jaffrelot calls "India's silent revolution." Simultaneously, the BJP has become a national party whose power and influence now rival that of the Congress.

From 1989 onward, every government in New Delhi has been a coalition, with many smaller parties shoring up a larger one. This has fragmented Indian democracy, making it hard for governments to frame a clear agenda. But 50 years from now, voters might see these years as a necessary phase in the evolution of Indian democracy.

And finally, looking back from today to its point of origin, Indian democracy seems so much more ... well, so much more real. Then, there was something of the miracle about it: a newly decolonized country of a few hundred million people, most of them poor and illiterate. Many influential voices in the West were confident that the experiment wouldn't last long. They were probably greatly amused when more than 2 million newly enfranchised female voters could not be listed on the electoral rolls for the first national election simply because they refused to supply any identity other than that of their husbands or fathers. This was a democracy?

The first Indian election in 1952, the historian Ramachandra Guha writes, was described by some as the biggest gamble in the history of democracy. The current one is merely the biggest in the history of democracy. And that shows how far democracy has taken India -- and India, democracy -- in just under seven decades.

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