Democracy in India: A Success or Failure?

Have we ever given heed to the kind of democracy we have in India and under what conditions it had been established? Well, let’s explore this. It is impossible to define Indian democracy as liberal, participatory or deliberative, because it is a blend all of these at the same time. It is not enough to only examine the formal presence of democracy but checking how effective are the institutions and procedures by relating them to the conditions that sustain them and reproduce them is equally important. So let’s check and examine what conditions were present when democratic values and procedures were adopted.


According to Sameul Huntington, Indian democracy as an institution was facing few crises at the eve of independence. They were: crises of national integration, crises of identity, crises of participation, crises of penetration and crises of legitimacy. Thus we see the number of challenges, which the newly independent and decolonized India was facing while adopting the system of democracy. The major problems before India were linguistic problems, caste system (which further took a new form of economic class system), poverty and illiteracy. To add to them malnutrition and poor health conditions, poor housing, poor work capability, lack of occupational adaptability and an inadequate level of savings reflected the clear picture of India.


Many scholars compare the status of development and democracy, since independence. Does democracy leads to development or development leads to democracy? This dilemma still remains. India had a firm nationalist base with the strong leadership of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister. But during that time, the members of legislative assembly were elitist. The democracy was functioning smoothly but in their favor because the masses were illiterate. Congress at that time was working for indigenous bourgeoisie. Thus congress became a party of social status quo.


1967 was the turning point when the state parties suddenly came into power. This was a signal of democratization of Indian politics. Due to balance of payment problem, international financial institutions devalued rupee and India started drifting into economic crises. Mrs. Indira Gandhi swept the polls in 1971 elections with the ‘eradicate poverty’ slogans. In 1975 with the misuse of article 356 of Indian constitution, Mrs. Gandhi declared an emergency in India. Economic crises, formation of Bangladesh and Authoritarian rule at the center weakened Indian democracy. The decision-making roles and powers of the cabinet members and ministers were consequently dissolved and were taken over by Mrs. Gandhi. Though the Panchayati raj system was to democratize the country at the village level but the power was still concentrated at the top of the pyramid.


After the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, there was a sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi who attempted to alter India’s development strategies. His motto of liberalization was partially successful but faced numerous obstacles. The country enjoyed the voting rights but the dynasty politics of congress remains till the present day, which makes the representation undemocratic. Not only Gandhi family but most of the MP’s in the Lok Sabha are a son or daughter to a politician. Sachin Pilot, Agatha Sangma, Rahul Gandhi and Varun Gandhi are a few to name.


But after all the turbulent years in India, democracy still exists in its unique forms. Arguably it is the best form of government. Democracy would thus appear differently to different classes of India. To more privilege classes of society it would mean the freedom of enterprise and to the lower orders it would mean equality (at least between communities) and representation. But whatever the contradictions democracy may offers, Indian democracy will continue in spite of its paradoxical and surprising history.


It’s noteworthy that despite everything, India has sustained a fairly stable democracy, while the countries with comparable (and in some cases much less serious) problems have abandoned democracy for authoritarian form of rule. There are many conflicting views on the success and failure of democracy and they all are associated to some ideals. For some an ideal democracy is a construct where people are truly equal citizens, politically engaged with an equal voice, tolerant of each other and where representatives are accountable. On the other hand, scholars have viewed democracy as an institution, which would mean free and fair elections, legislative assembly, and under this understanding India is considered as the largest democracy in the world. But any evaluation of democracy is of course, a combination of both.


Indian state has a deep commitment to democratic system and values as democracy provides impulse towards change and looks at contemporary struggles and movements of the people as a part of the democratic process.


Sumati Arora

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