This year marks the 20th anniversary of Lokniti, one of the most admirable intellectual initiatives in the history of independent India. Headquartered at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, Lokniti is a network of political scientists, teaching at colleges and universities across the country. It conducts surveys and opinion polls on each assembly and general election in India, which pay careful attention to voter attitudes and voter behaviour, and to cleavages of caste, class, and religion. Journalists across India, and scholars from across the world, rely massively on the vast storehouse of empirical data that Lokniti has assembled on the Indian elections.
Lokniti is remarkable for its depth of scholarship; and for the collegiality of its scholars. Most Indian academic institutions, like most Indian political parties, are dominated by a single charismatic individual. But Lokniti is run neither by an alpha male nor a high command. It is a genuinely decentralised network, which practises democracy within, even while studying democracy without.
In the recent round of assembly elections, the pollsters of Lokniti collected field-level data from different parts of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Punjab. However, for Lokniti the conduct and result of elections in India is only one element of their mandate. A second, as defined by their charter, is the development of “a comparative understanding of democratic polities in different historical and cultural settings”.
In the first week of March, when polling was still on in Uttar Pradesh, in distant Bengaluru a group of scholars were discussing a report that Lokniti, working with collaborators in four other countries, had just produced on the “State of Democracy in South Asia”.
Multi-party democracy based on universal adult franchise was long considered a Western monopoly. However, the data in this new report demonstrates that electoral democracy was now strongly rooted in South Asia. Once, only Sri Lanka and India held regular elections; now, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and even Bhutan have abandoned autocracy or monarchy for democracy.
Reading the report closely, one found that while, in a formal sense, democracy is fairly well established in South Asia, in a substantive sense there are real worries. For one thing, while a decade ago 64% of respondents were happy with democratic functioning, the figure now is closer to 55%. For another, respondents seemed to trust unelected (and unrepresentative) public bodies such as the army and the judiciary more than elected bodies such as Parliament.
Reading this well-researched report on democracy in South Asia, I was struck by how many respondents did not seem to believe that public institutions could function on the basis of impersonal or impartial rules and procedures. 47% of those surveyed across the region believed that bribes were required to access government services. 19% believed that influence or sifarish was crucial. 9% believed that knowing a politician would help them, while 6% thought they needed a middleman instead. A mere 19% of respondents believed that they could access government services without any intervention or influence whatsoever.
Nurturing democracy in the poor, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nations of South Asia was always going to be far harder than in the richer and more homogeneous nations of Western Europe. Among the major challenges the South Asian nations face is overcoming the dangers of linguistic and religious majoritarianism. The record here is decidedly mixed, with this latest Lokniti report demonstrating that minorities across the region continue to feel insecure. At the same time, the study found that, except in Nepal, religious minorities endorsed the idea of democracy more actively than did religious majorities. An earlier Lokniti study had found that, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, Muslims in north India began to vote in larger numbers. Harassed by the police, suspected by many members of the majority community, minorities across South Asia largely trust the impartiality of the ballot box, where each voter is equal regardless of the language she or he speaks or the religion she or he practises.
This latest “State of Democracy Report” will consolidate Lokniti’s already high and well deserved scholarly reputation. Yet I was disappointed to see so little attention paid to questions of gender. In all the countries of South Asia, women are discriminated against in multiple ways. They remain under-represented in the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Working women are often paid less and offered worse service conditions than their male counterparts in identical jobs. When it comes to making personal or professional choices, boys and men are far freer than girls or women. And within the home and the village, as well as in the office and the city, the harassment of women is ubiquitous, and violence against them widespread as well. So far as the treatment of women is concerned, South Asia must surely be one of the most undemocratic parts of the world.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal