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“India’s improbable democracy : Its Resilience and Pitfalls”‘

Ashutosh Vaishney’s lecture in the Consulate General of India


Report by Harjap Singh Aujla

New York,  May 21, 2014

In its series of monthly lectures on India’s democracy, the keynote speaker for May 2014 was Professor Ashutosh Varshney. The moderator was Ms. Maya Chadha, Professor of Political Science at the William Paterson University in New Jersey. The keynote speaker was introduced by the Consul General of India Ambassador Dnyaneshwar Mulay. The chief guest was Dr. Sudhir Parikh. In his well researched hour long lecture Dr. Vaishney mentioned that most of the international scholars like John Peter Mill and Mark Twain were highly skeptical about India ever becoming a successful pluralistic democracy. According to most scholars, India had too many languages, cultures and ethnicities and was difficult to govern as a single unified nation. They thought India was a group of nations, which could not co-exist. But barring the creation of Pakistan, rest of India has survived as one nation under an uninterrupted democratic set up. There have been insurgencies in several parts of India like Kashmir, Punjab, Maoist areas and the North Eastern states, but at any given time not more than 3% of the country faced unrest.

 Most internationally acclaimed political scientists believed that since India was counted among the poorest, ethnically fragmented and least developed nations of the world like Vanamato and Belize, democracy was not a system suitable for its governance. But the post independence top leadership of the country like Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru decided to go for a Western style system of governance based on self reliance and universal franchise. He said that in America, up to the end of the nineteenth century, the African Americans and the women were not allowed to vote. De-facto America was governed in its initial years of democracy by a regime elected by just about forty percent of its population. In India, when the first nation-wide election was held in 1952, every Indian, including the most illiterate, was allowed to vote and that is why we had symbols for candidates like cycle, flower, hand, elephant etc. All Indians could recognize the symbols. India’s size of the electorate, since the first election was the largest in the world, much larger than that of the second most populous country the United States. The bollot boxes were carted using primitive modes of transportation like ponies and camels. Since then the recently concluded election is the sixteenth election, in which 815 million people participated. Over five hundred million people actually voted. One hundred million were new voters and twenty three million were eighteen to nineteen years old. More than one hundred and seventy million voters, constituting thirty one plus percent of the actual voters exercised their franchise in favor of the BJP. This is the highest percentage of vote ever polled by the BJP. Narendra Modi, who ran a high pitched campaign, is the new leader of the country. Nine percent of the Muslim minority has voted for Modi, this is the highest Muslim vote percentage for the BJP ever, even a very popular leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP could get only six percent of Muslim vote.

 This election is a good sign for India’s democracy. About the role of caste based parties Ashutosh Vaishnav said that these parties have been decimated in the recently held national elections. Mayavati with eighteen percent vote share in U.P. failed to win a single seat. Laloo Parsad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and several other parties failed to impress. Mulayam Singh Yadav.’s Samajvadi Party, which currently rules Uttar Pradesh could muster only five seats. People rose above caste distinctions to vote for Narendra Modi. The Congress failed to match his charisma. About the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Ashutosh Vaishney said that as long corruption is endemic in the country, this party will stay relevant. In Punjab, it did very well by winning four out of thirteen seats, in other states including Delhi it did well in patches, but could not win any seats. It failed to win enough number of seats or requisite percentage of votes all over India to get recognition as a national party, but got more votes than several older parties.

The question and answer session was moderated by Professor Maya Chadha. During this Q &A session, my own observation was that in hindsight the creation of Pakistan, which was opposed initially by India’s top leadership like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, has turned out to be positive for the long term survival of India. Considering what is happening on a daily basis in Pakistan, with thirty percent of the then Indian army coming from the provinces of West Pakistan, India would have become unstable from day one with civil war like situation. Mr. Vaishney agreed in entirety and said that those who left India in 1947, their decision is acceptable and those who stayed on in India are welcome as the respected citizens of India.

Privately, after the function was over, he concurred with me that the nation rejected the leadership of  Rahul Gandhi. On a lighter note, I told him later that the nation rejected the concept of remotely controlled robotized governance, to which he nodded in affirmation. Dr. Sudhir Parikh thanked the speaker, the moderator and the guests.

Harjap S Aujla

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