Bengaluru: “The odds against democracy in India are surprisingly high,” observed Professor Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of Political Science at Brown University. Professor Varshney, who was in town for the second LC Jain Memorial Lecture organised by Janaagraha, a local NGO, said that despite its “electoral vibrancy, the quality of democracy in India is low.” The deficits, he pointed out, lie in the freedom of expression, religion and association. “They do exist, but they are not robustly anchored.”
India, said Professor Varshney, is the longest surviving low-income democratic natino. “We should have been another Pakistan or an Indonesia.” Why, then, has India managed to remain a democracy? The nation's structure is marked by dispersion, whether it is in terms of religion, language or even caste. “The Hindu-Muslim cleavage is the only clear national dimension.”
Despite a point of religious contention being the only clear unifying factor, India has never really had to choose between democracy and nationhood. “We have never had an existential threat to nationhood,” he explained. “Indian Muslims speak the local languages, so that supersedes religion. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils are different from the Sinhalese in every way, from language to origin, which resulted in a bloody war. India has witnessed insurgencies too, but they have never directly affected more than 3.5% of the national population.”
Nevertheless, India is at its freest during the time of elections, Varshney said. “After that, however, the elected government places restrictions on artists, writers, thinkers and NGOs. Writers, in particular, face harrassment for hurting sentiments of a particular group or undermining religious interests,” he said. “This has happened across every government. Minorities are often added to the list of targets as well.”
This situation worsens because the courts, Varshney explained, “take very long to subdue the government.” The idea of equality still hasn't sunk in, despite the fact that caste inequalities have reduced. “In Bengaluru, for instance, citizens are willing to argue tht they have rights vis-a-vis the state. Vertical citizenship has gone far and people believe that their vote can change the government. However, we are not ready to accept that all citizens are equal.”
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