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Celebrating Indian Democracy

Satyabrata Pal

By Sumantra Bose
Picador, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 337, price not stated.

By Ashutosh Varshney
Penguin, Delhi, 2013, pp. 415, Rs. 599.00


The books under review are two additions to the long and distinguished line of books that have puzzled over the improbable success of democracy in India. Sumantra Bose starts off by recalling Seymour Martin Lipset’s view that ‘the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy’. Ashutosh Varshney invokes the work of Prezeworski and others, who established that income was the best predictor of democracy. Both stress that India has remained democratic against the odds. But perhaps it should not be surprising if India does not fit an academic mould or conform to political theory, simply because, on so many counts, including its size and heterogeneity, it is sui generis. Theses developed from the experience of smaller nations may not fit a subcontinent.   For the same reason, examining the ways in which India kept the democratic flame alive serves a limited practical purpose, because what worked here might fail in states much smaller or less complex, where simple totalitarian solutions are both more tempting and more viable. The celebration of the fact that India is a democracy serves two purposes: reminding readers that what is now taken for granted was not a given, as Bose does, while refuting, as Varshney does, those, like Ayesha Jalal and others, who claim that in essence India is not a democracy.   Bose’s book is a succinct recapitulation of political developments from Independence, told with some sharp insights. The chapter on ‘The Transformation Since 1990’ is a masterly summary of the process through which the monolithic permanence in power of the Congress Party, and the dominance of the Centre over the rest of the circle, was replaced with the ferment and flux of coalitions, made inevitable by the emergence of regionalism as the driving force of national politics. Bose argues that this is an irreversible process, which is true up to a point. Politics will become increasingly local, but it is surely not a given, as Bose seems to argue, that this spells the demise of Congress and other national parties. (Varshney notes, with greater nuance, that ‘we cannot be sure that the decline of the Congress Party will continue to be irreversible’.) Indira Gandhi and her descendants refused to let powerful regional satraps rise, who would be independent of them, choosing instead pliable non-entities who were no match for local politicians who emerged from the people. Since, as ...

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