With a nation of 1.25 billion people, India is the world’s most diverse and possibly most baffling democracy. At one end of the spectrum are prosperous farmers in the Punjab who live in chalets that could have come straight from Switzerland. At the other, in Mahasrashtra is the wife of a farmer who once did well enough to become his village’s pradhan, but who was forced by crop failure and debt to commit suicide and to be followed by the son as well, leaving the wife to bring up her grandchildren on one meal a day and the bullying of debtors she cannot repay.
Drawing on his wide-ranging experience in the field and his understanding of the Indian political system, Sumantra Bose recounts the tale of Indian democracy’s evolution from the 1950s and lists the threats that confront it today: they range from poverty and inequality to Maoist rebel cadres and Kashmir secessionists. India by its very existence goes against American social and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset’s statement: ‘The more well to do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.’
Bose coherently analyzes India’s “decentered democracy,” in which power since the 1990s has lain increasingly with the state governments. Their authority is partly due to the federal constitution, but in a far greater part, it is the consequence of the takeover of many state governments by political parties that have their foundation in local ethnicities and that therefore have very little reason to be indebted to New Delhi. As an example, Bose cites his home state of West Bengal, where over its 34 years of rule, the Left Front coalition built a juggernaut dependent on the landless tenant farmers in rural belts, until overconfidence that backfired in Singur sent Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress storming into power. West Bengal today plays a dingdong game of supporting the Centre in times of need and disagreeing with it profoundly when it thinks the vote bank may be affected.
Bose also looks at two communities that have persistently refused to conform to the existing political system : the Kashmiri Muslims, who have rebelled for years against the military rule imposed on them by the Indian government , and the oppressed tribals in the forests of the east, who gave rise to a Maoist movement that time has not been able to stamp out – Bose however does use the terms Maoist and Naxalite interchangeably which was not the case during the first Naxalite rebellion, even though Mao was then acknowledged. He also compares the situation to that of the Shining Path in Peru which followed a similar path but ultimately lost out at the hand of disillusioned supporters. Traces of disillusionment can be seen among India’s tribals as well.
The Kashmir question on the other hand is more complex. Despite their differences of opinion, the Kashmir Valley and the Indian Union will be forced to coexist – mainly because the Valley’s economy depends on Indian customers and trade routes. And also because Kashmir’s growing young middle class population relies on India for higher education, careers, and professional training.
Bose could have considered the north east too, but that troubled region is not included even though it does suffer from marginalisation and civil strife.
At the time of Independence, there was only one enemy, the British Raj and the diversity that was Hindustan banded together for the most part for the cause of a free India. However, after the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, the scenario in India has been rapidly changing. That year saw the defeat of the Congress Party at the hands of the Janata Dal which cobbled together a majority through alliances with a clutch of new small parties that had sprung up in protest at Rajiv Gandhi’s policies.
Most Indians are willing to switch sides and parties at the drop of a hat and this has produced a unique form of democratic politics. Bose sees the problems facing India and China as they face the future as very similar: large populations, political corruption, deep poverty on one side and warring communal factions. Well researched and supported by a wealth of statistics and examples, Bose’s book does not end on a positive note where the world’s largest democracy is concerned.
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