Over two centuries, India bled to satiate the colonial thirst of the British Raj. For months after August 1947, waves of communal violence and insurgencies followed. However, on October 25, 1951, our nation took a leap of faith. On this day 72 years ago, general elections were held in India for the first time!
Many political analysts opined that India was far too diverse a country to be considered a single nation, and the attempt at national integration would get squashed by civil war and armed insurgencies.
Some suggested that India should follow a “consociational democracy,” where power gets shared between the elites and different social groups to cater for the demands of a “deeply divided society.” According to them, India was far too weak and divided to wade the influence of insurgent and secessionist groups, each rooted in their shallow political cause.
Such was the degree of unrest that Aldous Huxley, an English writer, in his book “Brave New World,” wrote about how Indian democracy would not be able to survive beyond the regime of PM Nehru. Huxley predicted after Nehru’s tenure as the Indian Prime Minister, India would either get confined under dictatorship or a military junta, as was the case in several Southeast Asian countries. However, even seven decades after the end of the British Raj, India continues to flourish as the world’s largest democracy.
Here is an attempt to categorise the course of Indian democracy over the past seven decades.
First General Elections in India:
India was freed from British rule in August 1947, and in March 1950, Sukumar Sen was sworn in as the first Chief Election Commissioner. In April 1950, the Indian Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, providing the blueprint for conducting direct elections for the Houses of Parliament and the Houses of Legislature.
The first general election was held between 25th October 1951 and 21st February 1952. A whopping 1,949 candidates competed for the 489 seats in the Lok Sabha, with more than 173 million people (out of a total population of about 360 million) participating to exercise their franchise. After the plebiscite, the Indian National Congress (INC) grabbed a landslide victory, winning 364 of the 489 seats and 45% of the total votes polled! Such was the extent of their victory that the first runner-up (Communist Party of India) could get only one-fourth of the mandate earned by the INC! Thus, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s first elected Prime Minister.
The phase of Socialist Democracy:
In its initial phase, the guardians of Indian democracy were predominantly inclined toward socialism, while keeping note of India’s widespread poverty and economic disparity, Pt. Nehru employed “five-year planning” and special schemes that left little space for Indians to avoid government supervision. Soon, Indian democracy was shrouded by “conservativeness” as License Raj and Economic Rigidity choked the natural development course.
Under Indira Gandhi, the government emulated the Nehruvian model by voicing “Garibi Hatao” but added a touch of authoritarianism through the National Emergency of 1975 and several controversial amendments that resembled a desperate attempt by Indira Gandhi to break free of scrutiny by the Supreme Court and her opposition in the parliament.
The phase of Inclusive Democracy:
In 1977, the Janata Party broke the INC’s hegemony by forming the first non-congress government of India. The Mandal Commission published its report in 1990, revealing the gravity of the socio-economic disparity in India. The Congress (considered a party by the elites) fell prey to Mandal politics, and Rajeev Gandhi was defeated by the coalition government led by Vishwa Pratap Singh in 1989. For the first time, people of the marginalised class climbed the hierarchy to occupy critical roles in governance.
The OBCs received 27% reservation per the recommendation of the Mandal Commission, giving birth to numerous political parties that broke away from the “elite congress” to foster an identity around the marginalised section of Indian society. Regional parties like the AIADMK, SP, and RJD diluted the hegemony of the INC and made the Indian democracy more decentralised.
The phase of Decentralised Democracy:
Following the liberalisation of the economy in 1991, the Indian democracy became “decentralised” in its true essence. It was here when the Indian democracy shifted from “static evolution” to “dynamic evolution” as the basic amenities of Indian lives got more or less taken care of. As digitalisation and computerisation crept in, so did the political awareness of the masses and an increased interest in political participation. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there was a 67% voter turnout (highest of all time)!
Today, India has the coveted prefix of “world’s largest democracy” accredited to its name. We are the world’s fifth-largest economy, which is a staggering feat if we consider the wretched history of India’s colonisation and oppression. However, India’s growth (both social and economic) has been lopsided and erratic. India ranks at an abysmal 147 out of 190 countries in terms of “per capita income,” a fundamental parameter for economic development.
In 2021, a Sweden-based institute, V Dem, noted that India is no longer an “electoral democracy” but an “electoral autocracy.” Through their research, they discovered that there was a significant decline in democratic freedoms since the BJP rose to power in 2014.
Today, the Indian media ranks at 142nd position out of 180 countries per the World Press Freedom Index, and according to political analysts, this is a glaring sign of a failing democracy. It happens when the ruling governments hunt the media and civil society, followed by the polarisation of the society through vicious narratives.
Our democracy has withered through many storms like national emergencies, riots, war, epidemics, economic recession, and intense political unrest. We have always stood our ground as a nation, and our spirit of fraternity remains sacrosanct. Thus, as long as we are politically aware, we have little reason to worry.
Hence, let us pledge allegiance to our democratic rights and remember this perennial message by poet and former Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “Satta ka khel toh chalega; Sarkarein aayengi, jayengi; partiyan banengi bigadengi; Magar ye desh rehna chaiye, Iss desh ka loktantra amar rehna chahiye!”