This month Hachette, India published a book by British historian Roderick Matthews entitled The Great India Rope Trick with a questioning subtitle: “Does the Future of Democracy Lie with India?”
The question is rhetorical. Matthews firmly believes it does.
The book was written after the 2014 general election and long before the return of AAP to the governance of Delhi. Even so, Matthews’ final chapter on the future of democracy in India could be seen as predicting just that.
Obviously, writing in 2014, Matthews doesn’t predict the severe reverse that the BJP suffered in the Delhi election but he does trace the forces that indicate that Indian democracy is in several ways on a fast track to maturity.
Matthews’ account of what democracy means or entails, his theoretical framework for the word whose meaning changes through practice throughout history and his analysis of the origins and the progress of it in India demonstrate that this British historian’s eye brings a universal perspective to the subject. It is a perspective that Indian historians, more influenced by the immediacy of political issues and engaged at closer range, have neglected.
The book, which extends to essays on and contrasts with India’s neighbours, made me stop and think about things I hadn’t thought of before: That the defeat of the Indian sepoy revolt, call it a war of independence or a mutiny, was the juncture or circumstance which put paid to the idea of monarchy in India. The Raj-patronised rajas and maharajas may have survived but the movement that grew out of and through the founding of the Indian National Congress (INC) firmly adopted legislative democracy as its ideal. No one called for the return of Mughal emperors, though parallel popular movements in Europe at the time, though fiercely for the will of the people were ambivalent about titular monarchs and showcase royalty.
Matthews refers to Partition as the most undemocratic act of the 20th century. A coterie of party grandees in the Congress and the Muslim League, together with the viceroy and the Westminster government, determined the fate and presided over the division. The 400 million people of the subcontinent were not consulted. I must admit to having read numerous books on Partition and have indeed written a couple of films-scripts set in the era but this obvious idea of determining the fate of India through universal adult franchise never occurred to me. Matthews, without providing the evidence for his claim, says that India would have voted three to one to resist Partition and stay united. Really?
Why did the ideal of democracy persist in India from the aftermath of the defeat of 1857 through the demand for legislative representation formulated by the intellectual class of the nascent INC through the freedom movement to this day?
Matthews points out that it hasn’t quite persisted in Pakistan or Burma, and has taken strange turns in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. What makes Indian politicians, however powerful, acknowledge defeat at the ballot box and resign themselves to noisy or wound-licking opposition? Is it the sheer weight of numbers which carries the winners into office? Or put the question another way: If 60% of the voters of West Punjab, Sind, Balochistan and Pukhtoonwah voted for, shall we say, Ronald McDonald, would the Pakistani army dare intervene, topple his regime and declare martial law?
In India was there the faintest prospect of the BJP challenging the victory of AAP in Delhi or would Narendra Modi, as he did, smilingly receive Arvind Kejriwal and congratulate the new CM as a PM should? The other factor that keeps India wedded to the practice of democracy is that it has given vast sections of the population, possibly the majority, empowerment for the first time in literally thousands of years. The rise of caste politicians to the chief ministerships of populous states is the result of such empowerment and there is no forcing that jubilant genie back into any lamp, bottle or ring.
The recent victories of Modi at the Centre and of AAP in Delhi are indicative of a growing democratic maturity. The BJP won more seats in UP than the Congress won in the whole of India, indicating that caste-allegiance can no longer be exclusively relied on in a ballot. Depositors are withdrawing their accounts from the vote-banks. A national ideal of development whose benefits may come straight or trickle down to the voter, from Arunachal to Kerala, weighs more heavily against regional loyalties and issues than it did.
So also with the AAP victory in Delhi. The people voted for anti-corruption not on a global scale, but for the promise that the normal entitlements of life will not have to be bought with the demanded bribe. They voted to have water, electricity, cheaper medicines and safe streets. What else can the demos want?
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal