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".

Two questions arise. Why is it so hard to sustain democracy at low levels of income? And why is India an exception?

Scholars have come to believe that in poor societies, politics is a do-or-die contest. Since government so heavily determines economic opportunities at low levels of income, the capture of political power greatly enhances one's, and the supporting group's, economic chances, and loss of power can spell doom. It is not uncommon for this doom to include imprisonment and forms of extreme vengeance. In contrast, at high levels of income, the economy becomes complex, and opportunities can be pursued in many sectors not dominated by government. Loss of political power does not entail an abrupt and total closure of opportunities. Acceptance of election defeats is not overly costly.

Why did India escape this logic in the 1950s or early 1960s, when it was desperately poor? A standard answer is that having led a popular anti-colonial movement, the Congress party did not face any serious threats to its power. In this reading, Nehru simply basked in the glory of the independence movement. His democratic commitments were not seriously tested.

But this mode of reasoning is flawed. Many post-colonial leaders had the halo of anti-colonial struggles around them, but most, at the first signs of trouble, abandoned, or severely compromised, their democratic credentials: Sukarno in Indonesia, Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Nkrumah in Ghana, Rhee in South Korea. And in Pakistan, the enormously popular Mohammad Ali Jinnah chose a viceregal, not a democratic, form of government. He preferred to be a governor general, not a prime minister. Pre-independence legitimacy can be frittered away, sometimes willfully.

Basically, a democratic system cannot drop roots if leaders use their personal ambitions or ideological leanings to subvert institutions, as all of the above did. If a charismatic leader did not invest the prior legitimacy of an anti-colonial movement, or his charisma, into nurturing institutions, democracy had little chance of survival in a low-income environment.

Nehru understood this, and more than any other post-colonial leader, he also practised it. In the 1950s, he lost the battle for agricultural cooperatives to Charan Singh in party forums, but he did not expel him from the party. He was not in favour of a linguistic redrawing of Indian states, but faced with a mass movement, he eventually adhered to popular wishes. He did not choose state chief ministers, allowing state-level party organisations to do that. When courts challenged his land reform programme on the ground that it undermined the right to private property, he did not attack the judges. Rather, he chose the method of constitutional amendments to seek exceptions under which private property in land would not be sacrosanct. Later, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, did exactly the opposite. She suspended elections within the Congress party in 1973, never to restore them; she imposed chief ministers and suspended state governments, using Article 356 at will; she attacked the judiciary and sought pliant judges. In a deep political sense, Indira Gandhi was anti-Nehru.

Described as a leap in the dark, India's first general elections in 1952 were the biggest elections in history. There were 173 million voters; 75 per cent were illiterate (hence party symbols — bicycles, lamps, lanterns, flowers, animals — were put on the ballot). The elections took six months. A million officials were deployed. Ballots to distant villages in Rajasthan went on camel back, and those to the islands on boats. Two more elections, in 1957 and 1962, each contested freely and vigorously, deepened the legitimacy of the electoral process in Indian consciousness.

Crafting democracy was hard work. Nehru campaigned even when elections were not round the corner, often saying that contact with the masses invigorated him. In those pre-television, pre-Twitter days, letters were another mode of being in touch with the masses. Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru's foremost biographer, writes: "Receiving, throughout the years of his prime ministership, about 2,000 letters every day... Nehru spent four to five hours every night dictating replies". And "there were the years when the Prime Minister was... putting in twenty-hour days with hardly even breakfast as a private meal".

Nehru's democratic record was not entirely flawless. Two blemishes have often been noted: the suspension of the Kerala government in 1959 and Sheikh Abdullah's imprisonment. Nehru's inner agony about both is well known. The surprise, of course, is that there were only two blemishes in a record of 17 years as prime minister.

India's democracy has several weaknesses, but the very edifice of democracy would not have been possible without Nehru's unwavering commitment to institutions during democracy's childhood. It is an enduring legacy.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor at 'The Indian Express'


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