Book Extract: India’s tryst with democracy

A fourth wave of democracy renewal will face formidable challenges, writes Radha Kumar in her new book. Do the earlier waves hold lessons?

A farmers' protest (photo: National Herald archives)
A farmers' protest (photo: National Herald archives)

Radha Kumar

Title: The Republic Relearnt: Renewing Indian Democracy 1947–2024
Author: Radha Kumar
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 999 (hardcover)


What, if any, are the lessons learned for Indian democracy from [its] brief history? As is often the case across the world, there are as many lessons on what not to do as to do.

One overwhelming lesson from the three waves of renewal encapsulates both. Democrats won each time they revived the constitutional vision of a freer and more egalitarian society, and Indian voters showed unlimited patience in accepting very limited fulfilment of that vision.

Democrats lost when it seemed apparent that they no longer upheld the constitutional vision. Their neglect of key reforms, despite available proposals, contributed to the weakening of institutions to protect democracy.

Disquietingly, key flaws in Indian democracy have been present from its very inception; they were exploited during the Emergency and again during the past ten years. Though, as chapter six concludes, the conditions for totalitarianism are still incipient, considerable inroads have been made into the impartiality of administration, executive checks and the accommodative capacity of society. More challengingly still, extreme forms of brutality have been internalized to a tangible if unmeasurable extent.

Book Extract: India’s tryst with democracy

At the same time, economic and social changes over the past three decades have added new expectations of equality. Welfare and a basic human security net remain a major goal for hundreds of millions of Indians below the poverty line but demands for opportunities in education and employment have grown exponentially as youth unemployment amongst those aged fifteen to twenty-nine years oscillated between 18.5 and 15.7 per cent in urban areas in 2020-23.

Independent reports suggested unemployment was as high as 42 per cent for graduates under twenty-five years.' Increasingly, unemployed youth make up the bulk of communal mobs. Two decades earlier, India's growing youth bulge- close to half the population is below thirty-five years of age, 27 per cent are aged between fifteen and twenty-nine—had been heralded as a potential force for economic growth, but high rates of unemployment threaten to associate the youth bulge with violence rather than productivity.

A fourth wave of democracy renewal will, thus, face formidable challenges. Do the previous waves of democracy renewal offer any pointers on how to overcome them?


The history of Indian democracy reveals three startling facts. First, that it was troubled more often than not. Excluding the years of Nehru's administration since they laid the foundation, the periods of democratic stagnation or decay in the next fifty-eight years outnumbered the periods of renewal by almost two to one.

In total, the waves of democracy renewal between 1964 and 2022 covered twenty-one and a half years. By contrast, the years of decay added up to thirty-six and a half, twelve of which were spent under authoritarian rule (including the Emergency and from 2014 to 2024).

Any analysis of Indian democracy's qualities has thus to take into account that neither its ethos nor its institutions have had the continuity required to embed themselves. They have had to be reshored three times so far, each time for only a limited period.

The second startling fact is that the three waves of democracy renewal did not build on the steps taken by their predecessors or did so only weakly and to a limited extent. While the first concentrated on political and to some extent administrative reforms, it neglected economic and security reforms.

The second focused on economic reforms and the creation of oversight institutions, but neglected administrative, political and security reforms. The third carried forward economic reforms, strengthened some but not all oversight institutions and attempted administrative and security reforms.

Like the second wave, it neglected political reforms and failed to control spiralling political corruption, partially a fallout of the exponential growth of regional parties which, on the plus side, spurred federalism.

The third, and connected, startling fact is that civil and political society movements rather than institutions or industry played the largest role in India's democracy renewal.

In both 1977 and 1989, rapidly expanding student, peasant, women's and workers' movements across eastern and western India fuelled the win of Janata administrations that pledged adherence to egalitarianism, freedom of expression and transparency. Public manifestations of discontent with the Modi administration have again been led by civil and political society groups such as students and farmers, along with minorities and women. Whether they will expand across the country and what they will achieve remains to be seen.

But past experience points to a consequent concern. Despite propelling democracy renewal, Indian civil society movements-and in some ways political society movements, an issue discussed later in this chapter-have rarely impacted political parties to effect structural change, or galvanized substantive support from influential groups such as industry, the judiciary or the media (the AAP is an exception that rose from a civil society movement to become an influential political party).

This lacuna has led to the continuing vulnerability of governance and oversight institutions-aided, admittedly, by resistance to change from within the institutions themselves. As a result, even those reforms that were partially successful could be rolled back by inimical administrations.

Ambedkar justified the great length of the Constitution as a necessary preventive to executive overreach in a country in which democracy was yet to be rooted. But prevention failed in the face of executive onslaught, not once but twice, chiefly due to neglect of constitutional loopholes.

Constitutional articles that clearly envisaged follow-up, for example, on the appointment of election commissioners, were not acted upon; articles that had been misused, for example on the appointment of governors, were not amended. Laws that were intended to be temporary, for example on preventive detention, were indefinitely extended even when conditions had changed on the ground.

There was no dearth of proposals to remedy these defects. The most important concerned fundamental rights, federal relations, administrative reforms and political finance. They remain as relevant today as they were at the time of their making.

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