Published in the June 1961 issue of Freedom First magazine, author SP Aiyar makes a case for the evolution of democratic ideals and institutions in India. The introduction of Montagu-Chelmsford reforms ensured that India and its leaders were trained in the democratic system, unlike the future of some other colonies in the world. He lauds the leaders of independent India for trusting and consolidating the democratic system through the 1951 general election.
You can read the original, unabridged version on Page 7 here.
Democratic government and politics rest on the idea of the responsibility of the rulers to the people, who are considered to be the ultimate repositories of political power. Implicit is the notion that people can exercise their choice to decide who, in their opinion, is most trustworthy and competent to govern them. They have the right to recall a government in which they have no confidence. By People is meant the electorate, which exercises its political decisions through the electoral system on the principle of one man, one vote. The bewildering variety of opinions in society is polarised by the party system, which in democratic countries is considered the bedrock of representative government. From this, it follows that though men are unequal in the endowments of Nature, they have the equal right to decide the form of government under which they live–for what touches all must approve all. They also have the right to live in a society that does not hamper their natural development.
Further, from the fundamental postulate that every man is a centre of absolute value, it follows that democracy is not an arbitrary government but one of the principles, the principles being embodied in the constitution of the land which is considered more important than the men who framed it or those who are at the helm of a temporarily constituted government. This is the implication of the saying that democracy is a government of laws, not men. When men conflict with the arbitrary actions or decisions of those in authority, they have the right to appeal to the law of the land interpreted by a free and fearless judiciary.
The corpus of democratic ideas in the form non stated is a product of Western political development. “Looking back to traditional societies of Asia”, says a wise interpreter of Asian institutions, “it is difficult to discern any approach to the values of democracy.”
In India, the British official policy for a long time rested on the assumption that the people of India were not mature enough to run the institutions of free government and that it would be unwise and unfair to introduce these into the country in the form of which they were found in England. A good deal of current sociological thinking still supports this view. But the articulate sections of Indian society educated in the liberal ideas of English politics furiously repudiated the official point of view and condemned it as the excuse of an imperialist power to hold on to India. A great Indian statesman and one who all along was deeply sympathetic to British policy in India wrote an article with a significant title, “Leave India, to her Fate.” The temper of Indian nationalism after the First World War compelled England to work out a compromise, and it was decided by the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms to grant self-governing institutions by stages. The executive was to become gradually responsible to the people’s representatives in a lawfully elected legislature. The strength of political forces within the country and outside compelled a speedier transfer of power than what was contemplated by the rulers or anticipated by the people of the country. But for an entire generation, the country’s governing elite had been under probation–under the guidance of a foreign government that, with all its faults, was constitutional-minded. This training period has been of immense advantage to India. To view it from the proper perspective, one must compare India’s experience under the British to that of Indonesia under the Dutch or of Congo under the Belgians. The comparative stability of democracy in India in spite of fissiparous tendencies too well-known to require comment is an eloquent testimony to the advantages of British rule.
When Independence came, those who had long been in opposition and trained in the techniques of agitation found themselves in positions of power and were naturally confident of their ability to govern the country. Nor did the people doubt their competence. Within a remarkably short period, a Constitution was framed for the country, which, though it has not been wanting critics both within the country and abroad, has stood the test of a decade of stress and strain. By the end of 1951, it was decided to hold a general election based on an adult franchise, which produced an electorate of 190 million. Dr Rajendra Prasad described this as an act of faith. Professor Hugh Tinker says that this was an act of faith in another sense also–in the Civil Service–for upon the officials fell the valuable task of making the elections possible. Considering the peculiarities of Indian society, even the task of preparing the electoral roll has been a great achievement. A second election in 1957 gave the country greater confidence in the operating technique of elections. Two five-year plans have registered a programme which is remarkable when one considers the difficulties in implementing these plans and the immature administration techniques which cannot be changed all of a sudden. The challenges in keeping close to the targets set in the plan and the divergent points of view that have been expressed are due to the fact that the Planning Commission has itself been passing through a phase of experimentation. The achievements of the Indian Government in many fields, however, are contrasted by considerable popular discontent. The fissiparous tendencies that one notices in India today and the pulls exercised by State Governments on the National Development Council to procure for themselves as many resources as possible are at least partly economic in character, the prospects of democracy must be viewed against the background of Indian economic conditions and the struggles that they have given rise to.
It is significant that 13 years ago, few people asked whether democracy would succeed in India; today, few don’t ask this question. This change in outlook is partially accountable for the unfortunate experience of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. What thinking men and women in the country want to know is whether the institutions of democracy have taken root after the efforts of a decade. There is, of course, no way of ascertaining this. Even an experienced gardener is not always sure if the saplings that he has planted will grow. In the case of human institutions, it is indefinitely more challenging to speak with confidence, for they do not grow by themselves and are moreover constantly disturbed, if not uprooted, by the violent passions of men.
Criticism of democracy in India is made from many angles, and it is impossible to examine all these here. Let us consider the working of democracy from a few prominent angles. It is said that in India, there is no opposition, and where there is no opposition, there can be no genuine democracy either. The idea that democracy requires opposition arises from the fact that no individual or group of men in society can claim to be infallible. The human mind, even if it has access to all the channels of information, including a free press, is an imperfect instrument for knowing the truth in all its aspects and it is necessary to evolve a system which ensures the dash of opposite points of view so that the different facets of an intricate problem can be seen as a whole. The word opposition in politics has a meaning similar to what it has in mechanics. When opposition becomes an end in itself, it defeats its own purpose and degenerates into obstructionism. This is what has happened in India. Often the attitude of the opposition parties has been negative and destructive rather than positive and purposeful.
On the other hand, the Government of India needs to be more responsive to public opinion. This is true or false according to what one is thinking about. In several cases, the Government of India has yielded to public opinion. In this context, one is reminded of the difficulties in the passage of the Hindu Code Bill. But in several cases, the government has also been obstinate. The influence of Government works subtly in various directions, and we often hear of pressures on particular issues or persons. All this may be true or false to varying degrees. It must be admitted, however, that a widespread belief in these undesirable ways of Government can, in the long run, be damaging to the cause of democracy.
Further, critics of democracy in India maintain that Parliamentary control over the administration is too imperfect to ensure responsibility. It must be admitted that there are twilight areas in the country’s administration. Students of Public Administration have often pointed this out – Dean Appleby, for instance. It is also true that publicity in Indian Administration is highly defective. There is no systematic or organised way of enabling the public to receive reports concerning various aspects of administration—the more critical the information, the greater its scarcity, e.g., Mr Gorwala’s Report on the Administration of Mysore is extremely difficult to get in Bombay. Even for research purposes, institutions need help to keep themselves continuously informed. A word must also be said concerning the authenticity of the reports. Prof. Morris-Jones tells us that the inaccuracies in the Rau Committee’s report on the administration of the Damodar Valley Corporation were due to the inaccurate information supplied by the Government to the Committee. There is also a large measure of truth in the criticism often heard that the Government does not take action on several reports. In other directions, the conduct of the Government has been praiseworthy. For example, the U.P.S.C., in its Report for 1957-58, states that during the year, there was not a single instance in which its advice was not accepted. If the Commission can report in this manner in the coming years, nourishing traditions will have been laid, and it will go a long way in providing a clean, civil service.
Though we have yet to go a long way in learning the ethics of parliamentary life, the working of India’s parliament leaves no room for despair. Parliament has become conscious of its rights and privileges. It is also necessary to remember that Nehru has been an educative influence on the Parliament and has been responsible for making the country aware of its value. What is essential to consider in any evaluation of democracy in India is not the weakness of the opposition parties but the temper and outlook of the ruling party. What strikes the student of Indian politics most is not the occasional departure from strict democratic etiquette, which one notices in the statement of rival political parties but the fact that all political parties consider the Constitution as preeminent and believe in the efficiency of constitutional methods. It is, of course, confirmed that the rank and file of the principal parties have yet to be thoroughly educated, but this will necessarily be a slow process. The present leadership of the country under Nehru has sound democratic instincts and can be trusted not to misuse the tremendous powers that it now enjoys. The prospects of democracy in India will ultimately depend on whether the democratic leadership will perpetuate itself. The electorate in India is free to choose between rival political parties and will exercise its right in the future as it has done in the past. Meanwhile, much will depend on Congress as the ruling party sets up norms of political morality and standards of behaviour for its rank and file and other political parties in the country. The excellent task before Congress for the present and future is to conduct itself in recognition that in a democratic system, no party enjoys the privilege of immortality.
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