Raising democracy

Nehru's unwavering support to institutions still shores up the polity

Every November, India debates Nehru. Of late, a new trope has begun to emerge. The post-1991 turnaround in India's economic fortunes is now presented as a testament to the economic follies of the Nehru era, when private initiative was frowned upon, government was the source of economic wisdom, and the commanding heights of the economy were reserved for the state.

Whatever our view of the role of markets in the economy — I firmly believe that India's turn towards markets has been a hugely positive development — a truncated focus on Nehru's economic philosophy, to the exclusion of everything else, is analytically indefensible. There was more to Nehru than economics.

Indeed, if Gandhi is the father of the Indian nation and Ambedkar the father of India's Constitution, Nehru is the father of Indian democracy. As more and more research on the origins and practices of democracy in different parts of the world is done in political science, Nehru's meticulous nurturing of India's democracy during its troubled birth and childhood stands out.

Scholars are convinced that democracies can be established at any level of income, but they don't last at low levels of income. With a few exceptions (Singapore and the oil-rich countries), countries at higher levels of income tend to have stable democracies. Adam Przeworski, a leading contemporary scholar of democracy, calculates that since World War II, 70 democracies in poorer countries died whereas, of the 37 democracies in the richer world, none collapsed. Indeed, concludes Przeworski, "no democracy ever fell in a country with a per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975, $6055".

India is yet to cross $2000 per capita. And in 1947, India's per capita income was perhaps not more than $150-$200, using today's prices. India's democratic longevity is thus unique. There is no historical parallel of great consequence. Przeworski calls India "a remarkable exception". Robert Dahl, another towering scholar of democracy, says India is "a major contemporary exception".

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