India overcame post-Independence challenges through democracy

By Shashi Tharoor

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According to the writer-politician the greatest achievement of the Nehruvian vision was the triumph of democracy in post-Independence India disappointing the Cassandras who predicted that an elected system of government would never work in a developing country.

Statue of Nehru in JNU. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My answer is simple: democracy. Nehru’s greatest satisfaction would have come from the knowledge that the democracy he tried so hard to instil in India had taken such deep roots, despite so many naysayers claiming that it would never work in a developing country. Through democracy, rooted in the constitutional rule of law and free elections, India has managed the process of political change and economic transformation necessary to develop our country and to forestall political and economic disaster.

India’s democracy has flourished while pursuing some of the most intractable challenges of development the world has known. Of course, fiercely contentious politics can be a significant impediment to India’s development, since reforms are pursued with hesitancy as governments keep looking constantly over their electoral shoulders. But this also ensures the acceptance of reforms when they are eventually made.

The experiment begun seven decades ago by India’s founding fathers has worked. Though there have been major threats to the nation from separatist movements, caste conflicts and regional rivalries, electoral democracy has helped defuse them. When violent movements arise, they are often defused through accommodation in the democratic process, so that in state after state, secessionism is defeated by absorption into civic nationalism. Separatism in far-flung places has been defused in one of the great unsung achievements of Indian democracy: yesterday’s secessionists have, in many cases, become today’s Chief Ministers. And thanks to the vagaries of democratic politics, tomorrow’s Opposition leaders.

India has also been proud of being able to demonstrate, in a world riven by ethnic conflict and notions of clashing civilizations, that democracy is not only compatible with diversity, but preserves and protects it. India is united not by a common ethnicity, language, or religion, but by the experience of a common history within a shared geographical space, reified in a liberal constitution and the repeated exercise of democratic self-governance in a pluralist polity. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for this dream; we in India have given passports to their ideals.

It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the lower castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power. The explosive potential of caste division has been channelled through the ballot box. Most strikingly, the power of electoral numbers has given high office to the lowest of India's low. Who could have imagined, for 3,000 years, that a Dalit woman would rule as Chief Minister of India’s most populous state? Yet Mayawati has done that three times in UP. And the ascent of a self-declared ‘chaiwallah’ to the position of Prime Minister is the ultimate testament to the triumph of Indian democracy. Let us hope he resolves the nation’s challenges rather than adding to them.

The author, politician, and former international civil servant is a third-term Lok Sabha MP representing the Thiruvananthapuram constituency and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology and was previously Minister of State for HRD and MoS for External Affairs in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. He was also an Under-Secretary General of the United Nations.

(Original text of the Malayalam version published in the Centenary supplement published in the Mathrubhumi daily of March 16, 2022)

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