The Indian Polity Today and the Road Ahead

It’s a great honour to have been asked to deliver the 9th Prem Bhatia Memorial lecture. Prem Bhatia’s reputation as an upright journalist, editor and commentator should serve as an inspiration for us all. I, therefore, join you in paying my very warm personal tribute to the memory of an outstanding editor, and thank the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust for asking me to deliver this year’s lecture. Prem Bhatia was always deeply concerned and engaged with India’s democratic processes, their sustenance and development. It is therefore appropriate that I today focus on Indian elections and democracy at a very crucial juncture in our political history.

The last general elections in which over 350 million people turned out to vote has produced a dramatic political upset; the greatest in Indian politics, and perhaps anywhere in the world. Very few could have foreseen that the Congress-led alliance would win 30 plus seats more than the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led combine. Few expected the Congress to emerge as the single largest party ahead of the BJP. No one could predict the unprecedented increase in the weight of the Left in national politics, with over 60 seats in a 543-member Lok Sabha and, given these numbers, qualitatively well placed to influence the economic, political, and foreign policies of the new government.

Overall, the stunning verdict signals the strong roots that electoral democracy has struck in India. Perhaps no election result, not even the defeat of Indira Gandhi and the Congress party in 1977, has been as important as this. The important difference is that the 1977 election was triggered and dominated by a crisis of regime fostered by the imposition of authoritarian rule. This election appeared to have been taking place in relatively unexceptional circumstances without any preponderant national crisis, no overwhelming national issue, and no prior contact or countrywide mobilization among people otherwise fragmented along language, religion, and caste lines. Yet, in a remarkable demonstration of how poorly read was the electoral mood, the deep-seated anger against the pursuit of socially and politically insensitive policies, and slogans such as India Shining which showcased the government’s gifts to the richer segments of society, and the bruising impact of the majoritarian Hindutva campaign manifested itself in a wholesale rejection of the NDA. Apart from the drama and excitement that verdict 2004 entailed, the unanticipated defeat of the NDA represents the most remarkable turnaround in Indian politics, and is likely to be regarded by future historians of Indian democracy as a watershed as significant, if not more so, than the election of 1977.

Going by this election, the Indian democratic process is spectacularly alive and there are no signs of its slowing down as a fountainhead of change; indeed, there are signs of its quickening in the last decade. Elections have been accompanied by increasing participation of the subordinate social groups, especially the Dalits, Adivasis, and women. India may be the only democracy in the world where the electoral turnout and political activism are higher amongst the poor than the upper- and middle-classes. The high stakes associated with elections motivates the increasing participation of these groups, but at the same time it has the effect of giving a wide range of marginal groups a high stake in the continuation and preservation of the democratic system. The history of Indian elections is, in a sense, the history of Indian democracy. This is because elections are not only about the practice of democracy, the turning over of elected representatives and governments, but we see in them the opportunity of providing space for political contestation, a renewal of citizenship, and shifts in political discourse. We can see how the discourse of politics has changed: the concept of governance has replaced development and poverty issues in the public domain, NGOs and social movements have replaced class politics, and political spin dominates public debates which are often not on substantive issues. My own interest happens to be in the role played by parties in the processes of political mobilization and social transformation.

What I would like to do this evening is to discuss some aspects of India’s democracy and the major challenges that still confront it. I will focus on the 2004 election and some of the key questions thrown up by the verdict. The suddenness of an election outcome very few expected and the scale of voter dissatisfaction with the BJP-led NDA should be a starting-point for further questions as well as a moment for celebration. Does the BJP’s electoral setback mean that its bubble is about to burst? A more pressing question is: Can we see these developments as an indication that the significance of the Hindu right is waning? Does this election outcome signify the re-emergence of secularism and tolerance as the dominant force in Indian politics?

The NDA and BJP have suffered substantial losses across the country among all groups, classes, and castes. Confident of winning 200 seats on its own, the BJP lost 44 seats to shrink to 138 and the NDA crashed from over 300 to 189 seats. The key members of the alliance suffered grievous reverses: the AIADMK was obliterated in Tamil Nadu, and the Telugu Desam and Trinamul Congress were decimated in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. The BJP suffered serious setbacks in key areas and states. Although the difference between the Congress and the BJP in terms of seats is only seven, we must remember that the Congress had 72 seats less than the BJP in the 13th Lok Sabha and now has seven more, which in real terms amounts to a substantial increase for the Congress which is not fully captured in a vote and seat share comparison. The BJP’s greatest losses have come in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi, and Haryana. Major figures in the government, such as Murli Manohar Joshi (Allahabad) and Swami Chinmayanand (Jaunpur), lost their seats, and they were among the key advocates of hardline Hindutva. The party’s defeat in Ayodhya, Kashi, and Mathura is particularly significant as these are sacred sites of Hindu nationalism, and therefore these losses have considerable symbolic significance.

Notwithstanding the unambiguous defeat suffered by the NDA, there is an intense ideological debate over interpretation of the 2004 verdict, which is almost as passionate as the election itself. Those who have been thrown off–balance by the verdict clearly want to minimize its significance by blaming it on anti-incumbency, state-level governance, and the NDA’s choice of alliance partners. Yet, others opposed to majoritarianism have nevertheless cautioned against over-reading or exaggerating the ‘anti-reforms’ message of the mandate. Although the elections did not on the surface seem to have a single-issue focus, as it transpired the verdict was a categorical rejection on the part of the electorate of both the anti-poor economic policies passing off as ‘development’ and the Hindu majoritarian identity politics projected as ‘nationalism’. In addition to these issues, on a general level, the NDA’s focus on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin as a major campaign issue appears to have seriously misfired, with voters decisively rejecting it.

The overall argument advocated here has been framed by the idea that the 2004 verdict is a mandate for tolerance, secularism, and inclusiveness delivered by a discerning electorate. In the context of this observation, it is legitimate to read this election as a battle over two different ideas of India, one inclusive and compassionate, the other homogeneous and elitist. The first idea, backed by a wide spectrum of political opinion ranging from Gandhians, the Congress, Socialists, and the Left, has constantly underscored India’s plural ethos and placed paramount emphasis on democracy, secularism, and social justice. Inspired by Nehruvian ideas, this model had ensured some level of tolerance and distributive fairness and yet at the same time sought to achieve economic growth, albeit slowly. The second idea is one that owes much to the flourishing, high growth economies of East Asia. This model has little place for liberal values, secularism, social justice, and accommodation. In this model even democracy is a convenience to be used and disregarded as the need arises.
The BJP-led NDA government believed, in essence, in the second idea. Even though the right wing BJP never won more than a quarter of the vote, its rise to power represented a paradigm shift in economic and political policy. It mounted the most potent challenge to the first model, which is closely related to the inspirations behind the freedom struggle and its progressive and modernist ideas. For the BJP, the key issue was economic prosperity of the middle-classes and the business elite, and transforming India into a Great Power by 2020. It believed that so long as the upper- and middle-classes were rich and happy, the bulk of the Indian population did not matter. Indeed, it allowed a miniscule economic minority to prosper at the expense of the majority and regarded the level of the Sensex as a measure of India’s success. In relentlessly pursuing neo-liberal economic policies, the NDA government allowed even the minimal goods that a state should provide – security of life and property, access to education, public health facilities, a minimum standard of living for large numbers of people to become market commodities rather than entitlements.

The BJP, taken in by its own hype, which was sustained by virtually all the opinion polls, decided to advance the Lok Sabha elections by eight months, and campaigned on the slogans of India Shining and the Feel Good Factor which it was convinced would pay the coalition rich electoral dividends. These slogans however backfired sharply. The government’s so-called achievements benefited only the rich, and the upper- middle class, and these sectors did not require a propaganda campaign such as this to be reminded about the escalation in their comfort levels during the past five years. By contrast, these slogans only served to remind the vast majority of the population that the benefits of reform had not reached it, and these sections of the people were determined to deny the NDA another term in office. In the end, the ordinary citizen voted to puncture the illusory aspects of this success story and the perceived indifference of its champions to the plight of those excluded or adversely affected by economic reforms. The Congress sponsored advertisements captured the frustration of the majority in the simple question: Aam aadmi ko kya mila?

The second aspect of the electoral message of the rejection of the NDA was the repugnance that was easily discernible in relation to the Gujarat developments. Narendra Modi’s continuance in office and the central government’s reluctance to hold the state government accountable for the post-Godhra riots despite the Supreme Court’s indictment seems to have influenced a wide spectrum of voters across the country. The communal violence and the consequent trauma for thousands of citizens and the failure of the Modi government to fulfil its constitutional obligations were disapproved as much by the majority as the minority. Ironically for the BJP, which would have hoped that it would be remembered by the India Shining campaign and economic reforms, only the legacy of hate and divisiveness, the setting up of the minorities against the majority, rich against the poor, the upper caste against lower castes, seemed to have lingered in the minds of the voters. Although many media pundits persuaded themselves that the constraints of office would normalize the BJP, large sections of the electorate were apparently unconvinced. The BJP’s electoral setback in Gujarat and Hindutva strongholds in Uttar Pradesh shows that the idea of a pan-Hindu identity has very little appeal to most Hindus, and in the elections they saw themselves as Indians, preferring a multiplicity of identities vastly more consistent with secular values, recognizing that these have greater significance in a modern world. It is difficult then not to conclude that the people’s verdict is a setback for sectarianism and ultra-nationalism, and an important gain for the ideas of pluralism and tolerance.

One of the most striking features of this election has been the shift in the avowed position of the Congress party. The Congress strategists succeeded in giving an ideological dimension to its campaign, presenting the party as the guardian of India’s heritage against the divisive politics of the Sangh parivar. It posited the party as a champion of the aam aadmi against the pro-rich policies of the Hindu right. This shift is to to a degree reminiscent of the left of centre reorientation of the Congress under Nehru in the early 1950s and Indira Gandhi in the early1970s, which produced major realignments in the polity and also played a role in reviving the party’s traditional social appeal among the poor and the disadvantaged. The empathy shown by the Congress party towards the lower socio – economic groups marginalized in recent years by the economic reform process seems to have contributed in large measure to the return of the Congress to the centre of the political arena.

This time it was the aggressive India Shining slogan, agrarian distress, and rising unemployment that forced the party to challenge the cynical way in which the NDA was seeking to win another term in office by misusing manipulated indices of economic performance and celebrating the gains that a small upper crust had derived from the liberalization process. The Congress manifesto talked of revival of public investment, of emphasis on the agricultural sector, of strengthening the public distribution system for food grains and other essential commodities, of not privatising profit making public enterprises, and above all, an employment guarantee scheme that would ensure a minimum of 100 days per year to at least one member of each household. Even though the Congress party has met with limited success in this election in terms of votes and seats, it nonetheless demonstrates the power of even a partial coalition of the social majority. The Congress-led alliance worked well precisely because it happened to coincide with and express the popular mood within the political system: the need to create an alternative to BJP’s package of liberalization, privatisation, and globalization tilted heavily in favour of big business, the thriving corporate sector, and middle-class professionals. That would seem to contain a message for the Congress that its political and governing identity would have to be firmly anchored in an egalitarian and humanistic framework, and that it would also need to unambiguously reaffirm its pluralistic democratic identity.

Another striking aspect of what proved to be a successful election campaign for the Congress was the manner in which the party, and its president Sonia Gandhi, took the message of the aam aadmi across the length and breadth of India in pointed contrast to the insensitive India Shining campaign of the NDA which dominated the cities and metropolitan centres. aam aadmi across the length and breadth of India in pointed contrast to the insensitive India Shining campaign of the NDA which dominated the cities and metropolitan centres. Sonia Gandhi’s leadership and tireless personal campaigning around issues of unemployment, rural and urban distress, and the need for policies with a ‘human face’ struck a chord with ordinary voters. Packaged as this powerful message was in Sonia Gandhi’s highly visible Jan Sampark programme, it generated large-scale voter support for the Congress.

Before she made history by her unprecedented decision to decline the post of prime minister, Sonia Gandhi had the support of over 300 members of parliament. She has, by example, re-introduced the notion of morality and public service in the political domain; values that the Congress party has inherited but which, in the last three decades, it has continually disregarded or squandered. The Congress party inherited too liberal democratic and secular ideals and a deeply humanistic ethos. Can Sonia Gandhi’s efforts now help renew this into a lasting force for a deepening of democracy?

One good thing that has happened is the return of Indian democracy to an institutional structure based on the separation of party and government; something that has not happened since the Emergency. However, the Congress president’s decision not to accept the office of prime minister and to appoint Manmohan Singh to the post has provoked gratuitous concern about the Congress president emerging as a rival power centre and about the impact of this on the institution of prime minister. The xenophobic campaign against Sonia Gandhi, first against her foreign origin and then against her as the ‘super PM’ is part of a concerted attempt to discredit the prime minister, destabilize the UPA government, undermine the popular mandate, and marginalize the ‘human face’ of the Congress party. That said, the Congress faces the challenge of efficiently reworking the relationship of the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not the elected leader of the single largest party, and the party headed by Sonia Gandhi whose popularity and prestige has been enhanced by her act of renunciation.

Yet it is true that the fears about the party and government acting as competing power centres are not entirely new. Indeed, in the Congress party there is a long history of tension between the prime minister and the party president. Actually, from 1947 to 1976, the same person hardly ever simultaneously held the post of prime minister and party president. The pattern changed in 1976 – 7 when Indira Gandhi took control of both the posts. In the case of the Congress party, two models of the prime minister – party relationship have prevailed since 1947. In the first model of ‘mutuality’ developed under Jawaharlal Nehru, though the prime minister’s power was never in doubt, he treated the party as a vital and valuable organization for gaining power and building a nation. During Nehru’s tenure, the Congress party actually formed a partnership with the prime minister and both gained from the relationship of mutuality. The prime minister was required to hold regular consultations and observe the requisite formalities. In return, hundreds of influential men and women were ready to proclaim their allegiance to the party, compete for offices under it, and campaign wholeheartedly to get its candidates elected to office besides promoting the policies of the government. The party workers found emotional and material rewards in the association with a great cause and powerful government. This model was supplanted during the Emergency by ‘prime- ministerial domination’. In the second model, from about 1971, the prime minister began to control all-important party and government matters, and the party became a compliant and acquiescent instrument. Once the Congress returned to office in 1980, Indira Gandhi retained the office of Congress president. Later Congress prime ministers have followed this pattern until the Manmohan Singh – Sonia Gandhi team decided to return to the earlier model of ‘mutuality’. In this sense, the decision of the Congress leadership to separate governance from political leadership, two equally critical tasks, and place each of them in a separate sphere, strengthens the structure of Indian democracy, ending as it does a phase of unhealthy amalgamation of the two often competing imperatives of governance and political stewardship, which both the centrally-driven Congress and the BJP were prone to allow. A formal separation of the two functions is necessary to reinforce the institutional character of the Indian democratic and governing apparatus.

Yet, it is unimaginable and unrealistic to suggest that a democratic society and popular government can function without the mediation or the influence of political parties. In a genuine democracy, parties play a dominant and decisive role in both elections and government. The question that arises is whether there is any need for the party to maintain its distance from the government. A few clarifications might be useful. A party has three dimensions: party in government (legislators), party as an organization (branch offices and members), and party in the electorate (sympathizers and voters). Indira Gandhi dispensed with the party as an organization. The party stopped articulating government policy to the people and carrying their concerns to the government, acquiring salience only during elections. One immediate consequence was the plethora of unmediated demands on the government, which it was unable to accommodate.

A vibrant party can act as a conduit between the government and the people by representing the interests of constituents and overseeing the working of policies to ensure that something is done about the pressing problems of the people. It increases levels of political awareness, mobilization, and participation. Even if it cannot bring about radical change, it can ensure that public policies have greater prospects of success than in its absence. However, it is precisely here that Indian parties have been found wanting, failing to prioritize the fulfilment of the basic needs, welfare, and livelihood issues of the people. To cut a long story short, Sonia Gandhi’s decision to maintain the Congress party’s organizational integrity is very welcome if it can revive the ‘model of mutuality’ that once existed between the party and the government. This will require something more than Sonia Gandhi keeping herself out of government. Her challenge will be to rejuvenate the Congress and once again make it a two-way channel of communication between the people and the state. To build a broad-based party, she will need to revive intra-party democracy because this ensures that leaders have a mass base and cannot be nominated. The task in hand is to look beyond the task of winning and losing elections and to ensure the continual organizational renewal necessary for mobilization of public support and endorsement of government policies. The institution of competitive elections within political parties and strengthening intra-party democracy may have the added benefit of altering the structure of incentives that politicians have to maintain their independent power bases and therefore reduce the incentives for patronage.

Critics argue that the office of prime minister will be diminished if it remains subservient to party leaders or the UPA. However, this argument ignores the fact that the office of prime minister is an evolving one and that the power of prime ministers has waxed and waned. An exaggerated prime-ministership is the outcome of centralized politics and the growth of institutions like the PMO, which has acquired larger than life proportions in the past few years and breached the standard bureaucratic arrangements of the parliamentary system such as the cabinet secretariat or even the council of ministers. Such concentration of power and centralization has created problems in the sphere of representation and a disconnect between the government and electorate, and is antithetical to effective governance. By sharing power and resources, the prime minister only enhances rather than dilutes his or her influence. In addition, centralizing prime ministers found that it is not humanly possible to cope with the vast demands on their time and capacities, and such problems arise when all powers are concentrated in the person or office of the prime minister. More to the point, the political awakening among various sections of society and simultaneous institutional decline has made it much more difficult for one institution to anticipate and respond to events, interests, and popular pressures, and to prevent things from spinning out of control. Therefore, an arrangement like the UPA coordination committee, consisting of representatives of all the parties supporting the government, and with someone other than the prime minister as its head, is a welcome move. Another new element is the formation of the National Advisory Committee (NAC), which will act as a watchdog of the government and oversee the implementation of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). Thus, the institutional arrangement at the Centre has three tiers: Council of Ministers, UPA Coordination Committee, and NAC.

The political compulsions of the government apart, is this institutional arrangement workable? The response to this question must take into account the ongoing debate about Indian democracy, especially with regard to the crisis of legitimacy of political authority. This in turn springs from a crisis of representation. The policies of the government have no resonance or relationship with the needs of the people. Mediation, consultation, and continuing accountability between the government and the people are wholly wanting. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the polity and erosion of parties and partly because representative government has been carved up between mutually exclusive compartments. The insulation of economic policy making from the political process and popular pressures began with liberalization. The solution lies in building new forms and channels of representation. Electoral politics cannot process the magnitude of structural changes that have taken place in Indian society in the past two decades. Perhaps the base of institutional democracy will have to seek legitimacy by responding to the politics of the plethora of non-electoral organizations and movements that have arisen in the public realm, that is, in civil society, and largely in response to structural changes in the latter. The UPA Advisory Council may help in bridging the gap and creating appropriate channels of communication and connectivity. This, in combination with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stress on the imperative of reforming and revitalizing public systems and institutional relations, has meant that the UPA government has brought about some important innovations and changes in the institutional arrangements for governance which could help to overcome the disjunction between the government and people.

This election has raised questions about the future of the political challenge to the BJP, and by implication, the future of the secularization project itself, particularly after the rout of the BJP in the latest Lok Sabha elections. Even three months after the verdict, the BJP has failed to come to terms with its debacle. In defeat, as in victory, the central contradiction confronting the BJP is, on the one hand, the impulse towards moderation if only to become the leader of a coalition of disparate parties and, on the other, toward an aggressive anti-Muslim agenda. The electoral success of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh has demonstrated that the party cannot win without the aid of the RSS networks. At the same time, it is a moot point whether the RSS can grow and expand without state support. The truth, which the BJP is still unwilling to accept, is that the overwhelming majority of people have had more than their fill of identity politics. Although the BJP may have a future and may continue to operate as a party with significance in particular regions, its core ideology of an all-encompassing cultural nationalism and it’s potential to become a hegemonic ideology has been seriously called into question.

This nevertheless poses a broader question about Indian democracy, namely, how can the values of mutual respect and tolerance be implemented in such a way that they govern people’s real lives in a democratic nation, and cease to just represent the constitutional and legal aspirations of the nation? The core values of the Republic embodied in India’s Constitution provide an admirable foundation for a society based on mutual respect, pluralism, and the protection of the basic rights of all. However, in the past few years, even with the elaborate protections for individual and minority rights, the experience of democracy has been one in which citizenship rights and long standing traditions of secular tolerance have been openly undermined, and key institutions have been pressed into the service of communal antagonism. The recent elections suggest that pluralism has a more hopeful future than might have been feared, opening up a great opportunity to restore the prominence of the secular discourse and promote the secularization of society.

One central issue here is whether the Congress will programmatically reject soft Hindutva and work for the promotion of the secular agenda. This is no easy question to answer in relation to a party that has in numerous instances been complicit in the spread of communalism, even if it does not have the aggressively communal orientation of the BJP. The big question confronting the Congress has been the separation of religion and politics and its position in relation to secularism. The Congress adheres, as far as it is possible, to the theoretical position of separating religion from politics. However, when it comes to practice and the application of secular principles to specific issues there does tend to be confusion between the hard line and soft line. The confusion arises when communal forces raise issues which are communitarian in origin but communal in expression. The classic example is the Rama temple at Ayodhya. Only too often Congress governments have displayed ambivalence on this key problem in contemporary Indian politics. This is an issue that demands a separation of religion and politics, and a clear demarcation of party politics and democratic elections as secular matters that should not therefore invoke religious advocacy. The halfway measures pursued by past Congress governments principally benefited the BJP. Although the election did not focus principally on the secular – communal divide, it is now clear that what sets apart the Congress from the BJP is their approach towards secularism. During the election campaign, Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was unsparing in attacking communalism, and this was the issue that brought the coalition together in the first place. This should exert some pressure on the UPA to remain loyal to its secular popular mandate and any attempt by communal forces to exert fresh pressure on the government to yield further space to their chauvinist demands must be unequivocally and unwaveringly resisted, bearing in mind the message of this verdict.

Representing, one hopes, the burial of neo-liberalism and retrograde cultural nationalism, the two concepts that could have undermined the structure of the Republic, this election presents India with an opportunity to renew its original moorings as a secular democracy with strongly rooted egalitarian impulses. Both these concepts had converged to push the people and their livelihood issues into the background. The non-inclusiveness of the process of economic development in India, notably post-1991, and the uneven development between regions and between peoples, was obvious. It is the political space created by the yearning of the electorate for an India free of these dark clouds which has to be addressed and respected by the new governing formation in order to bring people’s issues to the centre of the agenda.

The very creation of the UPA is a response to the historical need to repudiate the two flawed notions of neo-liberalism and cultural nationalism. This alone can explain the phenomenon of two unlikely political formations, the Indian National Congress and the Indian Left, coming together on the same platform to shape a new governing entity that reflects the political impulses and popular aspirations that went into the rejection of the NDA in the recent election. The two very distinct identities of the Congress and the Left will need to cohere to a degree that will infuse durability in the process of governance and thereby infuse the secular government formation with credibility. On both sides there is need for accommodation: the Congress will necessarily need to steep itself in more egalitarian and pro-poor approaches, and the Left to recognize the constraints of the Congress which, as a typically centrist, catch-all political formation, lacks a strong ideological core. This will require the Left to adopt a social democratic orientation for the present, and for the Congress too it involves reworking its understanding of economic reforms to achieve greater synchronization with its electoral support base, primarily the less well off.

India’s democratic system is well established. There is considerable evidence that Indian democracy is maturing and deepening, and politics and elections are providing space for contestation and avenues for expression of rights and claims. While the persistence of a democratic–federal-secular polity is a major political and human achievement, formidable challenges remain in the realization of substantive democracy. One important challenge comes from the project of Hindutva, which has been seeking to redefine democracy in majoritarian terms, exposing the fragility of Indian pluralism. However, the principal challenge remains the creation of a more equal society and reduction in the vast economic disparities that exist between regions, classes, groups, and individuals, further aggravated by globalization. What I have sought to emphasize this evening is no more than a reminder of the continuing disjunction between political equality and socio-economic inequality and the problems of the legitimacy of political authority that this creates.

The balance sheet of political developments, however, was not only towards contradictions in Indian democracy. Contrary trends point towards a greater inclusion of the lower strata of the people even though governments have repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to the poor. The fact that BJP-led NDA was voted out of power in a free and fair election confirmed the efficacy of Indian democracy: those who are oblivious to the economic circumstances of the majority and trample over the basic minimum interests of the people will lose popular support. While democracy in the past two to three decades has seen a transfer of power from the upper castes/classes to the middle ranks, it has not resulted in power sharing with those at the bottom of India’s social structure. Rural voters have come to play a significant role in India’s democratic polity, both in terms of their participation in social movements and in the elections at national and state levels. At the same time, much of this political energy has not amounted to adequate attention being paid to their concerns because the policies and politics that matter are the politics of state institutions concerned with the rural economy and not the vast numbers of rural voters. While democracy in India has spread deep and wide it has not facilitated any significant distribution of wealth and income; rather regular elections can obscure a growing concentration of power among political and economic elites, which operate outside the frame of party politics. The tragedy of farmers and the despair of the rural poor in the past few years demonstrate how easily the state can ride roughshod over the developmental aspirations of social majorities.

However, the erosion of political institutions, including most notably, political parties, is not an indication of the inability of India’s democracy to offer protection to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of society. The connections between democracy and development in relation to disadvantaged groups have been forged both because of the intended and unintended consequences of state policy or state failure. The backward classes have interleaved themselves into the political process at the local, state, and national levels in a process that some political scientists describe as the transfer of power or silent revolution, as a result of which power is gradually being transferred from upper castes to various subaltern groups in the government and legislature. This process underscores the pivotal role of government and state policies in relation to education and reservation for these groups and their advancement, even though this does not guarantee an improvement in the livelihoods or the social standing of the social majorities within these groups that propel them to power. The emerging challenge of the backward communities to elite dominance help us to understand the relationship of the state and political process in Indian democracy as also the relationship between the state and social movements. For all the vitality and vibrancy of social movements and NGOs in India, they are not an alternative to the state. The histories of backward caste politics in Tamil Nadu and class politics in Kerala imply that social movements are effective when they exert pressure on the state to protect the interests of disadvantaged communities and the poor. The broader issue here relates to the contemporary concerns and recent controversies over corruption in public life. While this draws attention to warranted criticism of the workings of politics and government, it is on the other hand important to note that ordinary men and women have not lost faith in the idea of the state and state intervention. The dynamic process of interaction between the government and social movements, most apparent in Kerala and to a lesser extent in Tamil Nadu, illustrates the possibilities of such interaction between state power and democratic development, but this cannot be understood except in a context in which the power holders in the state have supported popular struggles against local power holders.

The strength of the CMP lies in its recognition of the progressive powers of the state and democratic process and an acceptance of the proposition that improving the living conditions of the social majority is the responsibility of the state, which it must immediately begin to discharge. A noteworthy aspect of the CMP is the manner in which it deals with the question of distribution. It recognizes that rapid economic expansion is a necessary but insufficient condition for poverty reduction, and that this requires the creation of an appropriate enabling environment for the underprivileged that enables them to reap the benefits of more rapid economic growth through an expansion in employment. By questioning ‘the immanent logic of neo-liberal economics’ and more generally ‘conservative politics’ as the guiding lights of Indian democracy, the CMP creates an opening for an alternative and more humane trajectory of politics and development.

The UPA ought to be consistently pursuing three themes: an urgent need to address the issue of employment; the parallel urgency of increasing social spending; and the need to speak out and act openly against communalism and the communalization of constitutional and educational institutions. If it pursues these issues, it could begin to reorient itself both on ethnic – religious identity issues and questions of economic and social justice. Crucial here would be the reversal of past policies that have exacerbated inequality and disparities, and generated jobless growth while impoverishing the majority of the people and, above all, the need to provide justice to the victims and survivors of the Gujarat violence. The last election turned precisely on these two issues. The voters have clearly exercised their franchise in favour of equity and pluralism; now it is the UPA government’s responsibility to put into train the original idea of India.