India’s multi-religious, poly-ethnic democracy: a model for the future?



India today remains the world’s largest democracy, but it is clearly facing serious threats. While anticorruption measures and economic reforms may be necessary, they are insufficient to ensure that all Indians continue to enjoy the benefits of a free and democratic society, argues Freedom House Research Coordinator Rukmani Bhatia.

While the Constitution of India has not been amended after the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014, BJP-ruled states have passed laws which have reflected the Hindu-nationalist ideology of this party, including those known as “beef bans,” notes analyst Christophe Jaffrelot. These laws and the activities of Hindu nationalist vigilantes (in particular those protecting the sacred cow) are transforming the members of some minorities—mostly India’s Muslims, but also its Christians—into second-class citizens. As a result, India is effectively distancing itself from its traditional secularism and becoming an ethnoreligious democracy, he writes for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.*

India, argues Sumit Ganguly, Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at the University of Indiana, could provide the model of the future. “India’s success with democracy is living proof that that it is possible to embed democracy in a poor, multi-religious, poly-ethnic state,” he says. “Democracy has taken root despite seemingly impossible odds.”

So many of India’s problems can be laid at the door of the country’s gigantic, interfering, corrupt, lumbering, radically inefficient state, Neel Mukherjee writes in a TLS review of Superfast, Primetime, Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of Modern India by Adam Roberts.

“India’s perennial problem, despite being a democracy, has been the failure of its state to deliver basic services of all sorts,” Roberts notes:

China’s success story provides the contrasting template to India’s failure. The version of state capitalism that has delivered such gains to China is inseparable from its authoritarianism. Roberts deplores this aspect of state power; yet the triangulation between his valorization of the theoretical model of Indian democracy (in practice, it is somewhat different), the investing of all hopes in the “strongman” (read: authoritarian) Modi to bring in economic reforms, and the examples of China’s success creates a unique vector.

“In which direction does it point?” Mukherjee asks. “Towards the spectre of authoritarianism in India, but with a crucially new factor thrown in. When not actively instigating, aiding and abetting, the current government has dangerously fanned the flames of sectarian violence.”

The latest issue of the JOD also features the following articles on India:

Ashutosh Varshney on  India’s Democracy at 70: Growth, Inequality, and Nationalism

India’s Democracy at 70: The Federalist CompromiseLouise Tillin MORE

India’s Democracy at 70: The Shifting Party BalanceEswaran Sridharan MORE

India’s Democracy at 70: The Impact of Instant Universal SuffrageSwati RamanathanRamesh Ramanathan MORE

India’s Democracy at 70: The Disputed Role of the Courts Ronojoy Sen MORE

India’s Democracy at 70: Civil Society and Its Shadow Subrata K. Mitra MORE

India’s Democracy at 70: The Troublesome Security StateSumit Ganguly MORE

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