India introduced universal adult franchise to its citizens in 1950. The country had seen the departure of the British only three years before, mass famine stalked the land and less than one in five Indians were literate enough to sign their own names. Taking all this into account, the General Election of 1950 was one of the modern world’s miracles. To put it into context, the richest country on the planet, the United States of America, only gave its African American citizens full voting rights in 1965 – 15 years after India’s first election based on universal adult franchise. Vagaries common in the neighbourhood, such as army rule and blatantly rigged polls, did not find a place in India.
Yet, Indian democracy also has its flaws – quite a few of them, in fact. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, for example, revealed that most Indians might actually be tiring of their seven-decade old democracy. Of the Indians surveyed, 55% backed autocratic rule by a strong leader unfettered by legislatures or courts, 53% supported military rule and 65% found technocracy – a government run by unelected experts – to be a fine idea.
This might be an uncomfortable fact – but is it really a surprise? From significant support for Indira Gandhi’s Emergency to elections fought on giving the country a supposedly strong leader, Indians have always had an authoritarian bone or two in their body.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi make a rather interesting pitch on why he should be elected prime minister: he had a chest that measured 56 inches. It is unknown if this is literally true, but making pectoral size an election issue was an unmistakable metaphor: Modi was saying he is a strong leader.
Even as a few Indians expressed concern for India’s democracy given Modi’s authoritarian tendencies, for most Indians this was not an issue. For other voters – as the Pew survey brings out – it was actually an appealing attribute , something that added to Modi’s allure.
While Modi might have made use of this to his benefit in 2014, this tendency to favour strong leaders is hardly new. It is barely remembered now, but quite a few middle class Indian cheered on Indira Gandhi when she suspended Indian democracy in 1975. The Emergency was supposed to free Indians from the lumbering juggernaut of democracy. The train were to run on time, black marketeers were to have been destroyed and inflation curbed.
The 1977 election that saw Indira Gandhi crash to a defeat is supposed to have been a great reaffirmation of democracy. Yet, this triumphant narrative might border on being simplistic. Gandhi’s vote share in South India actually increased and she still got a larger proportion of the vote in 1977 than Modi did in 2014. Anger in the Hindi belt against Indira Gandhi, it seems, rested not only the suspension of democracy but draconian measures such as forced sterilisation and the departure of Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram.
While Indira Gandhi is – rightly – reviled for the Emergency, even her father, held up as the man who cemented Indian democracy wasn’t above a spot of autocracy himself. Jawaharlal Nehru, in fact, set the terrible precedent of dismissing state governments for blatantly partisan reasons using Article 356 of the Constitution. In 1959, Nehru placed Communist-ruled Kerala under Article 356 for the express purpose of helping the state unit of the Congress.
Rajiv Gandhi didn’t disappoint either. His government passed the anti-defection law in 1984, which took away the power to vote from individual legislatures concentrating power in unelected party high commands. This is a highly unusual move in a representative democracy where, ideally, legislators should vote as per their constituents’ needs not the whims of the party boss. Notably, Pew defines autocracy as a decision taken without “interference from Parliament or courts”. The anti-defection law, in effect, legally enshrines a lack of interference from Parliaments.
As worrying as the support for autocracy is, even more so is the preference for military rule in the Pew survey. Again, this is more than backed up by events in present-day India which has seen a sharp rise in the use of militarism in politics. The Indian soldier is now frequently used as a rhetorical tool in political discussions. Declaring that “soldiers are dying on the borders” is device often used to shut down debate. This has meant the appearance of army men in the media. Television discussions often have the presence of one or more retired, moustachioed officers.
More alarming, even serving soldiers now play a media role. The Indian Army took the unprecedented step of staging a press conference with Major Leetul Gogoi, the officer who used a Kashmiri man as a human shield in April. Later, a news channel was even allowed to interview a member of the army team that carried out the 2016 surgical strike into Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between countries that chose autocracy, military rule and technocracy. This is unsurprising. All three are driven by a disdain for the pushes and pulls of electoral democracy.
Yet, this is chimera. There are no shortcuts which leave out popular democracy. While experts are certainly important, too much reliance on them could also be disastrous as the 2008 financial crisis showed in the United States. Unsurprisingly, technocracy has wide support from the Indian middle class – 65% supported it in the Pew survey – given that an an engineer or economist is a more familiar figure than a low-caste politician from the mofussil.
Thus there is unusual support for a proposal in India to reduce democratic control of the police and hand over some power to a committee of experts. Another variant of this tendency to use expertise to override popular sovereignty is a Haryanan law that bars the illiterate from contesting panchayat polls – upheld by no less than the Supreme Court. For a country that prides itself on being a democracy in spite of poverty and illiteracy, this is a shameful abdication of its core values.
India’s democracy is hard fought and a remarkable exception in a largely autocratic neighbourhood marked by bureaucratic and army rule. But as recent developments and this survey show, there is little room for complacency.