The best to see the current crisis of Indian democracy as the outcome of a “democracy capture.” This couldn’t happen without some structural weaknesses.

[Excerpt from Yogendra Yadav’s new book Making Sense of Indian Democracy]


Modi’s rise to power in Gujarat, his ascendance within the BJP, and his nationwide electoral victory were not preordained. Plausible counterfactuals come to mind: it is not hard to imagine a very different course of history had the Anna Hazare movement not delegitimised the UPA regime, had the Congress leadership not proved itself so utterly inept, had the Pulwama attack not happened as and when it did. So, I think it is best to see the current crisis of Indian democracy as the outcome of a “democracy capture” that was at once contingent and determined. We need to understand how a political leader seized upon a very difficult chance and converted it into a personal triumph — and how it is that he now manages to do so repeatedly. At the same time, this democracy capture could not have happened without some structural weaknesses within the Indian democratic enterprise. A student of democracy must focus on the conditions that made this kind of capture possible.

Challenging old notions

Understanding this democracy capture requires rewriting democratic theory. The dominant orthodoxy on democracy presents us with a neat definition of democracy, a universal normative standard which allows every political regime to be pigeonholed into a democracy/non-democracy binary. This is a highly stylised and selective version of what has in fact been the contingent path that democracy has taken in a tiny but dominant part of the globe. Making sense of democracy in most other parts of the world in the twenty-first century demands that this orthodoxy be challenged on multiple grounds.

First of all, we need to widen the conceptual apparatus of “democracy” to include diverse ways — languages, idioms, theories — in which democracy has been understood all over the world. Second, it requires enriching the normative standards embedded in the idea of democracy by taking into account the many histories and traditions of democratic thinking across the world. Third, we need to expand the repertoire of institutions, conventions, and practices that go into the making of democracy in societies that are often quite different from each other. And fourth, we need to rewrite the history of actually existing democracies, both in the global north and the global south, to reflect their radically different experiences and trajectories.

While challenging democratic theory is a global challenge today — besides Narendra Modi, we live in the age of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin — the task is certainly essential if we are to make sense of Indian democracy, for the dominant narrative fails to understand both the successes and the failures of our specific variety of this broad template called democracy. If we go by the dominant understanding of the preconditions of democracy — namely, some degree of affluence, and widespread literacy — India should never have been a democracy in the first place. If we insist on oscillations of power within a muti-party competitive framework, the “Congress system” should not be characterised as democratic. If we stick to the idea of an overlap between the cultural boundaries of a nation and the political boundaries of a state, independent India with its deep diversities should never have survived beyond its first decade and made a transition to a democratic nation state. If we believe in a balance between participatory urge and institutional depth, Indian democracy should not have taken off in the 1960s; and having taken off, it should not have suffered the crisis that it did during the Emergency; and, once its institutional fragility had been as exposed as it was during that episode, Indian democracy should not have survived the Emergency. The rise of identity politics — region-, caste-, and religion-based mobilisation through the 1980s and 1990s — should not have led to a consolidation of democracy. And, once democracy became “the only game in town” and was buttressed by an unprecedented rate of economic growth, Indian democracy should not have faced its worst crisis — the one it faces today.

Clearly, students of Indian democracy need a fresh pair of glasses. We need to see the democratic enterprise in India as an open-ended journey. The formal journey began as a joint enterprise: building a self-reliant and self-governing nation, alongside the building of democratic institutions for the new nation. Alternatively, democracy featured as an impediment, as a road block necessitating consultations, procedures, and consensus-building — all resulting in slowdowns that could ignite pre-existing faultlines and lead to explosions. The democracy capture that we face today is one such danger, always lurking round the corner.


[A version of this article was first published in The Hindu on 12 August 2020.]