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The trajectory of Indian democracy

The recent landslide victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi state elections is representative of the change which has permeated India in the years since independence

The trajectory of Indian democracy
‘Paanch Saal’ for Kejriwal.

In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India, called for a general election. These elections which took place in the early part of 1952 were the first elections to be held in India on the principle of universal adult franchise. The result of these elections was that the Congress returned to the centre with nearly 45 per cent of the vote, whereas its nearest rival, the Communist Party of India could only muster just over three per cent of the vote, and the Jan Sangh — the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party — the BJP — came in third with just about three per cent of the vote.

The 1952 elections were a significant marker in the historical and democratic trajectory of India. First, they established a critical principle that after every five years, the government, no matter how popular it might be, must go back to the electorate to seek a fresh mandate. The last elections were held under the Government of India Act 1935 in 1945-6, and had a very limited franchise. Only about 10 per cent of the adult population of India was eligible to vote in the last elections under the Raj, and so the common man in India had no say in the government they inherited in independent India.

Hence Nehru felt that recourse to the electorate — now on the basis of universal adult franchise — was essential. Secondly, for the policies and reforms initiated by the Congress government it was essential that the party got elected on a broad based platform. The huge victory it achieved in 1952 was a boost of confidence to the grand old party that it still held the trust and mandate of the people — not that anyone doubted it, yet still the exercise of elections was necessary.

Just over sixty years since the general elections in 1952 India has, barring the twenty one months of emergency between 1975-77, never had a government which had not been elected. The mere exercise of elections has meant that the people have understood that they are the eventual arbiters of the careers of politicians and that they have to come back to them to remain in power. The power of the vote, so to speak, has taken decades to take root in India, but now that it has in most of the country, it is a powerful tool in the hands of the have-nots.

Indian democracy is by no means perfect — it is not even near it — but what differentiates it from that of Pakistan is a commitment of the political parties to the process.

The recent landslide victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi state elections is representative of the change which has permeated India in the years since independence. This is not to say that India’s democracy is perfect — far from it. Even in the United Kingdom — the cradle of modern democracy, one always hears of reforms being envisaged in the electoral system so as to make it better. Democracy is not a perfect system, nor does it function perfectly anywhere in the world; but it is certainly the best system we have, and therefore we must work with it.

The victory of the AAP in Delhi has shown a number of facets of Indian democracy, which, if they were present in Pakistan, would lead to a stable and functioning democratic system.

First, the AAP is solidly a middle and working class party. No such parallel exists in Pakistan. All major parties in Pakistan are either led by the landed or big capitalists. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which comes closest to a middle class party is led by a sycophant and only has an ethnic base, making its appeal and development limited. The restriction of the party to the urban centres of Karachi and Hyderabad over the last two decades shows its limited and controlled appeal.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which was poised to revolutionise the party milieu of Pakistan, also failed on this front with landlords and capitalists at the forefront. It is quite obvious that neither landlords nor capitalists would help create laws which would curtail their power, and of course unless power is redistributed from the elite to the common man — and it is always partial, never absolute — democracy will not take root.

Second, the AAP victory illustrates that the ‘Modi factor’ was not as charming as people thought initially. Yes, Modi did promise a lot and that was the main reason why he swept to power. But the lacklustre performance of the Modi Sarkar in recent months showed to the public a certain hollowness in the claims of the Sarkar and hence this result. The million rupee suit which Modi donned to receive the US President failed to charm the public in Delhi while the muffler clad Kejriwal resonated with the general public.

Third, it showed that people wanted change, a fight against corruption and service delivery and that they voted on the basis of these factors. They did not vote on the basis of who looked cool — Modi of course won there, or who had a legacy behind them, and the Nehru-Gandhi clan in the Congress had the monopoly there — they voted on the basis of actual plans and promises of better roads, better healthcare provisions, cheaper electricity and gas.

All the promises which led to the victory of the AAP can be measured and therefore at the next elections the AAP leaders — especially Kejriwal — will have to defend their performance. In contrast, in Pakistan people do not vote on deliverables. They vote on either dynastic slogans — the PPP in Sindh and the sardars in Balochistan thrive on this — or on ‘turns’ for which the PTI chanted at the last election, “Mian Sahib Jaan Deo, Sadi Wari Aan Deyo”, meaning “Mian sahib please leave, let our turn come,”. They also vote on vague promises of a wholesale change in the ‘system’ where no one clearly knows what will happen — the Jamaat-e-Islami is a point in case here. Hence, unless politics in Pakistan is based on deliverables, democracy will not develop.

Fourth, all parties in the Delhi elections accepted the election and its administration. There were no cries of ‘bogus votes,’ or ‘rigging’ etc. This was despite the fact that there must have been some rigging — there is rigging of some sort even in the UK and the US for example — and that considering the total wipe out of the Congress and the massacre the BJP suffered they could have hid behind these kinds of allegations. The fact that all political parties accepted the process is a critical factor in the strengthening of democracy in the country.

In contrast in Pakistan a number of political parties cry foul when they lose an election. This deliberate undermining of the election process destabilises the whole democratic process, and the political parties know this. In Pakistan, there is also a general distrust of democracy as a system.

Indian democracy is by no means perfect — it is not even near it — but what differentiates it from that of Pakistan is a commitment of the political parties to the process, the right conditions in which democracy can actually develop, a voter who through experience and empowerment knows that he/she has the power of the vote, and a chance for the politicians to actually realise their promises.

India and Pakistan might have achieved their independence on the same day, but their later histories have shown how different they have developed, and their democratic trajectories is just one factor exemplifying the difference. The AAP and Kejriwal have a lot of hopes tied with them, so I wish them luck. Kejriwal, Paanch Saal — do something!

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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