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Democracy and Development in India

Stating the Problem

Contemporary politics in India is characterized by issues and movements that seek to challenge and re-define the meaning of both democracy and development. The purpose of a development strategy that involves hardships, dispossession and displacement, supposedly in the pursuit of the development is being interrogated. How can a strategy of development be democratic if it does not take into account the sufferings that it brings upon a huge section of the citizens of India?

From an easy and optimistic acceptance of India’s development programmes and democratic structures and processes, citizens of India and indeed  leading political analysts have in the 21st century moved towards a more questioning and critical attitude towards the issues of democracy and development.

In the years following independence there was joyous hope and pride in the establishment of democracy, but by the end of the 20th century, this gave way to cynicism and disappointment with the functioning of democracy. On the other hand, there has been a renewal of democratic spirit among the citizens of India in the form of numerous people’s movements that question the various aspects of the Indian state and its functioning.

This intense interrogation is because of a deepening disconnect between the agenda of democracy on the one hand and that of development on the other hand. The two ideas seem to be pulling in different directions.

In the years following independence, when the nationalist glow was still warm and reassuring, there was a kind of consensus built around the charismatic leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was believed that India’s economic problems were a result of colonialism, and with independence, the nationalist state would address and tackle this problem. Development was seen as a vital and inseparable part of the democratic agenda, and it was clear to all that the Indian state was cast in an economic role in order to further the cause of democracy.

By the end of the 1960s decade however the first cracks in this consensus began to emerge. This breakdown of consensus then sped along, and by the 1980s through many other tumultuous events of Indian politics, the challenge to the Nehruvian consensus became stronger, louder, and deeper. The aim of the democracy/development project was to challenge social and economic privileges that were entrenched in India. In reality, however, the Indian state soon forgot the intertwined nature of the democracy/development agenda and hoped that somehow the fruits of development would seep downwards without any concrete and institutional changes being made in this regard.

People’s restlessness began to express itself in the form of numerous social movements that questioned the legitimacy of the Indian state and its policies. These movements repeatedly drew attention to the sharp inequalities and discriminations that continue to be a part of the Indian landscape. These movements challenge the practice and ideas of development; question the validity of a development programme that leaves out the experience and aspirations of the vast majority of Indian citizens.

By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that the hope and belief in the democratic credentials of the state was gone, and people began to re-think their role in forging a democratic society, polity, and indeed economy.

Conventional avenues and structures of democratic politics have become progressively more corrupt and ossified and the distance between these structures and the democratic aspirations of the people has grown considerably. On the other  hand, is the reality at the  ground level, of people engaged in democratic struggles for livelihood, water, city  space, education to name but a few. These struggles are a consequence of the limited success of India’s democracy. The Indian state however ironically dubs most of these movements as disrupitonist and undemocratic.[1]

There is no denying that governments in India are voted in and voted out, elections are by and large free and fair, and the media is open and powerful. However, this does not complete the score card of democracy in India. From the late 1980s there has been a spate protests andresistanceoffered by the dispossessed and poor, more specifically, groups of citizens most likely tribals whose lands, lives and cultures are being taken away either by the state directly or on behalf of big private industries.

Unlike in the past (early decades after independence) where such groups of citizens quietly faded away into oblivion and a life full of indignity and insecurity, from the 1980s, the winds of democratic citizenship that blow across the Indian sub-continent ushered in a new and changed response-in the form of resistance to the state and its sponsored “development” programmes. This opposition is not tolerated by the Indian state and is denounced as anti-national, thus the state’s coercive might is employed against its own citizens- this being a complete violation of the fundamental understanding of democracy.

This has challenged the ideas and practice of democracy in India like nothing else before. The enormity of the challenge lies in the fact that the opposition is coming from the very citizens in whose name these “development” projects are initiated. Yet the supposedly “democratic” state continues with it!



Tracing the journey of Democracy and Development in India

Even prior to independence the Indian people were more or less committed to a democratic future. The experience of colonialism reinforced this desire for democracy. Of course, as was to be expected, there were considerable differences in the understanding of the meaning and functioning of democracy and development in post-independence India. This indicated a vibrant and democratic political ethos in the making.


The definitions of democracy were wide and sweeping, not limited to the institutional facet alone. For instance, one of the sub-committees of the National Planning Committee of the Indian National Congress constituted in 1939- the sub-committee on Women’s Role in Planned Economy (WREP) clearly stated that democracy in India would remain a limited experience if women’s lives within the family and the economy were not suitably re-structured (Nirmala Banerjee, 1998).

The Constitution of independent India reflects both the concern for democracy and it close linkage with development- the preamble opens with a most eloquent appeal to the need for equality, liberty, fraternity, justice the dimensions of which are not just political but clearly spelt out as social and economic (Rajeev Bhargava 2008).

 In the period between 1947 to roughly 1966 there was considerable amount of overlapping of economic and political programmes. The economic component it was believed would bring a better life for Indian citizens thus furthering democracy. It was hoped that the elaborate provisions made for dalit and marginalized communities would bring about a social transformation thus strengthening the democratic fabric of India, and, secular institutions and principles would eliminate the importance of religion from public life enabling the citizens to be free from the stranglehold of religion, as well as become equal citizens in public life.

Over the six decades after independence, the painful observation that has dawned upon the citizens of India is that the development programme remained flawed and limited. Economically, it failed to bring about a transformation in the lives of vast majority of the people of India.  Persistent and rampant poverty remains a problem, and over the last two decades, the improvement in the lives of ordinary Indian citizens is a goal that is no longer heard repeated with any degree of conviction.  The voices and concerns of the poorer sections of India are not heard enough in boardrooms and planning bodies. The chant of privatization and globalization is often repeated, this discourse of course has nothing to offer the very poor and the marginalized. This is indeed a severe limitation of the experience of Indian democracy (Nayyar 2001).

In the real world of statecraft and policy making, faced with the rough and tumble of politics, both the definitions of democracy and development took on a very limited (in the case of democracy an institutional connotation and in the case of development statistical growth rates) meaning.

The early decades after independence were thus marked by an uncritical acceptance of the Indian state’s definition and programme of democracy and development, except by the ideologically distinctive Left groups as well as the Hindu nationalist groups on the right. By the end of the 1970s the Indian electorate had tasted blood in a manner of speaking, having thrown out the Indira Gandhi led Congress government that had suppressed the democratic rights of the citizens by declaring a national emergency.[2]

The hope and belief in the democratic credentials of the state was gone and people began to re-think their role in forging a democratic society and polity. This led to a tremendous churning of the political class and resulted in the birth of many new social movements that questioned the existing consensus over the meaning, purpose and manner of functioning of Indian democracy and the goals and manner of development. These movements in a certain sense became the harbinger of the new phase of Indian democracy.

Disillusioned with existing party and political structures, many of the new movements nurse a healthy contempt and suspicion of conventional democratic politics.The Indian state seems to have lost its edge as far as the democratic agenda is concerned, and the poor seem to have rejected the “mainstream” definition of development.


Development vs. Democracy

The popular media and journalistic accounts of Indian society and politics post 1990s presents a picture of India that is marching ahead thanks to the advantage of English language education combined with spread of computer literacy and technology. The expansion of the Business Processes Outsourcing (BPO) is a common example. These developments along with many similar changes that are occurring in the economy thanks to globalization are often held up as evidence of the rapid strides taken by India on the development front.

Today a great deal of reporting on India in the local and international press is about the economic revolution sweeping India and the transformation of the Indian economy from a marginal player to a global giant specially in some key areas and sectors like software, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

The tendency to be self-congratulatory in the context of repeated and smooth electoral transitions of governments and a largely free media and culture industry is rather disturbing. Democracy it is declared has firm and deep roots in India. We need to reflect critically upon the nature of democracy and how the ordinary Indian citizen experiences it, we also need reflect critically upon the nature of development and how it impacts the lives of Indian citizens.

Niraja Gopal Jayalobserves that the frontiers of democracy in India have been stretched in the recent years like never before (2001). Apart from many other factors, she identifies two very significant ones, the first is the multitude of what are described in India as grassroots movements and the second is the unprecedented assertion by backward and marginalized castes (Raka Ray and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein 2005).

Jayal believes that the two big challenges to Indian democracy have resulted in a somewhat more inclusive democracy being created. This is however; she contends not the same as a deepening of Indian democracy. A deepening of democracy in India would require a commitment to restructuring and re-ordering of the society.  The direction that democracy in India is taking is inclusionary, satisfied with the creation of new categories of citizenship with special provisions for employment and education in government institutions. In this framework therefore, class differences are pushed to the background and the pursuit of egalitarianism not spoken about[3] (Zoya Hasan 2009).

The third change has been the bold and loud questioning of the Indian state’s development programme which is supposedly devoted to the welfare of all its citizens. Development for many decades was seen as a sacred chant that the state would invoke and the citizens would repeat. From the 1990s, many social movements are questioning the merit of a development strategy that leaves thousands of Indian citizens displaced and distressed. The question being asked is how democratic can a development strategy that is not desired by vast sections of the citizens of India be?


Political Empowerment vs. Economic Disempowerment

Deepak Nayyar has analyzed the relationship between democracy and development in the changed context of liberalization and globalization, his insightful analysis has led him to conclude that India is witness to a volatile mix of the politics of empowerment and the economics of liberalization that leads to economic disempowerment.

He opens his argument by stating that there is an inevitability of tension between the economics of markets and the politics of democracy. The tension he argues emerges from the fact that while the principle of one person one vote guides political life to some semblance of equality, the sharp differences in people’s purchasing power in the economic arena  leads to great inequalities.

Market economyand political democracy are being touted as the solutions to all the predicaments that human societies experience (Nayyar 2008). The implication is that political democracy brings political freedom to the individual while market economy would usher in economic freedom for the individual.  The fact however is that in societies with deep and widespread inequalities like ours, political democracy executed through universal adult franchise does not ensure a substantive experience of equality. What it does succeed in doing is recognizing formal equality which is it cannot be denied is a very significant yet only symbolic victory.

What we see in India today is the tension between the economics of the market and the politics of democracy. In the market it is money that determines an individual’s reach, and this would differ a great deal from person to person, whereas in the political arena based on universal adult franchise every individual is equal to the other based on the ideal of one person one vote. So while the rich man or woman might have more votes in the market, he or she has absolutely the same number of votes as the poor person- in the political arena- one vote per person is the uncontested principle.

The practice of political democracy is about inclusions, whereas the experience of market economies is about exclusions. Markets exclude the poor as consumers if they do not have the money to buy what is on offer, and markets exclude the poor as producers if they lack the skills and resources that the markets value.

Economic exclusion accentuates social, political and cultural exclusion. Individuals that are economically excluded from the market as the tribals and other marginalized people also have to cope with social, cultural and political exclusions. Often, despite having the right to vote they are unable to cast it or their economic vulnerability is exploited to regulate their political choices. Thus, while formal democratic structures and practices are in place, economic exclusion from the market to varying degrees makes the substantive experience of democracy rather limited.

Does this mean that it is always better to be included in the market? I am not so sure of that either. Being included forcibly by having to work as underpaid labour mostly in the case of children and women is as bad as being excluded by the market.  In the first case it is the lack of money and resources and in the second case it is deliberate exploitation of the inequalities that create disgruntled citizens who are supposedly politically equal.

Globalizationhas indeed brought new opportunities and avenues for Indian citizens, but the fact is that not all are in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. This undermines the very universalistic foundation of democracy.

Nayyar’s argument is that in the absence of a strong commitment by the state to the social sector and limited investment in skill and education sector, the Indian economy remains peculiarly stunted, and skewed in favour of those who are in a position to take advantages of the limited opportunities. This he argues does not augur well for the cause of democracy in India (Nayyar 2008).

Politically, democracy has taken roots in the Indian soil and is stronger than ever before. Socially too, caste and other centuries old hierarchies are being questioned. Politically and socially there is indeed a sense of empowerment, however, this is not matched by economic empowerment. Socially and politically the hitherto marginalized Indian citizen is trying very hard to be heard. Electoral democracy based on one person one vote assists the citizen in this pursuit but only to a limited extent.

The retreat of the state from the economy over the last two decades has however hurt the poorest the hardest. There is unease among the marginalized, social and political awakening has helped them find a voice but they have been sidestepped by the economic processes. The latter was expected to bring economic equality and prosperity to all, instead, only some groups of Indian citizens have benefited, and this casts a pall of gloom over the celebration of Indian democracy.

What India is witnessing today is the result of the tension between “economics of liberalization and the politics of empowerment”. This tension can be employed creatively to further transform India in a democratic direction.

What I seek to argue is that the extent of dissatisfaction that is being expressed by various marginalized and powerless groups should not be seen as a failure of Indian democracy but rather as an illustration of the success of the agenda to usher in democracy into a society that has for long been trapped by hierarchy and oppression.

What we see is a vast body of people who are excluded by the glitzy new avatar of the market in India, but firmly included in the politics of democracy. This asymmetry is what results in political movements, and challenges to the state. Economically, the rich in India have become more powerful and dominant than ever before. Politically, the idea of democracy has indeed made the ordinary Indian citizen aware of her power like never before. Obviously she seeks a translation of this political power into economic power and challenges development strategy that shuts her out or includes her on terms that are completely oppressive. This asymmetry between the economy and the polity is the story of contemporary Indian politics.


Is Democracy Hindering Development: Comparing China and India

India is often compared unfavorably with China and the conclusion drawn is that democracy in India is the major roadblock in the way of development. Chinaon this account has surged ahead because it is not shackled by democracy and its tortuous structures and conventions. In the nineteenth century, economic statistics indicate that India was ahead of China, so was the case even as late as the 1970s. From the 1990s China has truly raced ahead leaving India lagging behind (Bardhan 2010).

An explanation that has gained common currency is that China is free to soar since it is not burdened by the cacophony and confusion of democracy as in India.[4] Pranab Bardhan argues that the relationship between democracy and development is indeed a very vexed one, and democracy could well create both positive as well as negative influences on the development process. Many voices being articulated, and many demands being made, as in a democracy, undoubtedly slow down the pace of development. On the other hand, mid course corrections are possible and fatal mistakes can be avoided in the development policies because of the restraining effect of democracy (Bardhan 2010).

Indiais characterized by a heterogeneous and conflict ridden class structure and an assertive electorate consisting of large numbers of dispossessed and the poor. This limits the options for the Indian state, making the Indian state less forceful and unable to pursue any one policy rather rigidly.  While in China the relatively more homogenous and less conflict ridden nature of the society makes such initiatives more likely.There is no doubt that India’s multi class state has found it difficult to satisfy all class partners in the ruling coalition. On the other hand, the pressures of electoral democracy have made the situation more challenging (Bardhan 1998; Kaviraj 1988).

China has an assertive and decisive leadership that can spearhead long term initiatives, but the absence of transparent and institutionalized system of checks and balances has often produced disastrous consequences ( for instance the overreaction to the SARS epidemic and the attempts to clamp down on the tainted milk scandal).  In China, the local administrative levels equipped with a lot of clout but no  restraining checks often overreact to crisis situations and connive with capitalist interests in a most rapacious and exploitative way. It needs to be mentioned here that it was these decentralized local administrators that spearheaded rural industrialization but the cost has been very high in terms of safety, environmental pollution and health of the populace.

Bardhan argues that authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for economic development. He turns his attention to many authoritarian regimes in Africa and elsewhere to prove that authoritarianism is most certainly not sufficient for development (Bardhan 2010).

Democracies, Bardhan argues even from a purely instrumental point of view are valuable because democracies can prevent catastrophic mistakes (China’s Great Leap Forward and the famine that ensued could perhaps have been averted in a democratic framework).

Democracy makes conflict resolution more likely and thus makes the polity less volatile and more stable, creating a more positive environment for development. Democracies exert pressure for a more egalitarian distribution of the fruits of development thus help reduce the human cost of development making it more sustainable in the long run (for instance the rights of the people who are displaced in large numbers for development projects, or the vast tracts of land that are taken over from small peasants for setting up large housing or industrial projects).

In an information network driven world, a free flow of information is crucial to development. Democratic societies with lower levels of surveillance would benefit more from the technology and information thus available, making development and growth that much more viable and equitable.  These are interesting albeit rather instrumentalist reasons as Bardhan himself points out to choose democracy over authoritarianism in the pursuit of development (Bardhan 2010). This is not to suggest that Bardhan does not value democracy as a value in itself.

After dwelling on the virtues of democracy, Bardhancautions us about the pitfalls of competitive populism and conflict ridden ruling classes in heterogeneous society like ours. This undoubtedly makes the working of democracy very difficult and does have a tendency to pull back development goals. The middle class in India, restless to join its “rightful place” amongst the global success stories is often heard complaining that the poor and the dispossessed are slowing things down. On the other hand, the poor are restless for their share in the growth pie, considering that they see themselves as politically equal citizens.


The “Mess” of Democracy

Democracy has ushered in a social revolution in India, whereby the poor and the marginalized are unwilling to keep quiet. New groups seek and obtain power and are very keen to assert their newfound power and status in society, sometimes through extravagant and opulent architecture and landscaping (Kajari Jain 2010).

What is going on in India? Sudipta Kaviraj (1996) has explained this tension between economic development and democratic aspirations as a peculiarity of modernity in India. Modernity he argues is composed of various features like the centrality accorded to the nation-state, social individuation, capitalist industrialization and the rise of nationalism and democracy. While in the west, industrialization preceded democratization, in India, the two developments are unfolding almost simultaneously. Unlike in the west, the Indian state on its campaign of capitalist industrialization has to contend with an ‘unruly’ body of masses that have already been initiated into the magic of democracy. Whereas in the west, democracy was grafted much later to the tree of capitalist industrialization. This gave the modern nation-state in the west, ample scope to discipline its masses.

Rough and new voicesof the new groups that seek power disturb the existing elite who complain of the unruly and badly behaved masses who have barged into the enchanted world of democracy!! The irony is in the fact that democracy which is supposedly of the people is apparently threatened by the people! With more and more new groups asserting themselves, the earlier neat and tidy management of power is no longer possible. This may be moaned as the decline of the norms and conventional protocols of democracy, or it can be understood as the result of political empowerment in a society that has experienced the most rigorous forms of oppression and hierarchy over centuries.

Could democracy wait till development is achieved? The answer was and continues to be a resounding no. In that lies the challenge for Indian politics (Kaviraj 1996). Although in a certain sense democracy was introduced from above, the good news is that it has been truly and completely embraced by the people of India from below. People are eager to use the framework provided by political democracy to improve their lives and better their opportunities. It is this perhaps that is responsible for the deepening of economic and political conflicts in contemporary India. Ironically what seems like a dysfunctional democracy because of the evidence of repeated conflicts and movements is actually a vindication of the spread and reach of democracy. People are not satisfied with what comes their way and are asserting themselves for a rightful share in the development pie. This assertion seems “unruly” but is in a certain sense the triumph of democracy, and there should be no doubt in this regard.

The citizens of India are committed to the creation of a democratic and participatory economy; it will be the people of India who will inscribe their aspirations on the future course of the development strategy that affects their lives and livelihoods.

To be taken seriously as a democracy, Indian citizens must be free to debate the nature of their future and have control over those decisions. Academic debates notwithstanding, it will be the people of India who will inscribe their aspirations on the future course of the development strategy that affects their lives and livelihoods.


Banerjee, Nirmala.'Whatever happened to the dreams of modernity? The Nehruvian Era and Women's Position', Economic and Political Weekly, 33, 17, 1998.

Bardhan, Pranab. (1998) The Political Economy of Development in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bardhan, Pranab. (2010) Awakening Giants Feet of Clay. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bhargava, Rajiv.(Edited) (2008)  Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hasan, Zoya. (2009) Politics of Inclusion Caste, Minorities, and Affirmative Action. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Jain, Kajari. “The Handbag that exploded: Mayawati’s Monuments and the Aesthetics of Democracy in Post-Reform India”. Public Lecture, JNU, 13th December 2010.

Jayal, Niraja. Jayal, Niraja Gopal.  (Edited) (2001) Democracy in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kaviraj, Sudipta.‘The Post-colonial State: The Special Case of India’, Critical Encounters (Web Journal), 2009.                            

Kohli, Atul. (2001) Success of India’s Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.     

Kohli, Atul. (2005) State-Directed Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leftwich, Adrian. (Edited) (1996) Democracy and Development. Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Menon, Nivedita and Nigam, Aditya. (2007) Power and Contestation, India since 1989. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.

Nayar, Baldev Raj. (Edited) (2007)  Globalization and Politics in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Nayar, Deepak. (2008) Liberalization and Development. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ray, Raka and Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod. (2005) Social Movements in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.







[1]One is reminded of the French philosopher Foucault who observed that there is no greater evidence of power than resistance to it.

[2]The emergency was declared by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the summer of 1975, in response to growing opposition to her politics and policies. The declaration of emergency implied a temporary suspension of democratic rights. Despite the fact that most of the top opposition leaders were imprisoned, the people of India did not lose hope and organized effective movements to challenge her arbitrary decisions. She finally called for elections in 1977 only to be defeated. This was the first defeat that the Congress party was facing at the centre.

[3]In fact in most instances there is hardly any conversation between movements seeking greater representation for backward and marginalized castes on the one hand, with movements that seek to question the discourse on development.

[4]  The other explanation attributes Chinese success to its intense globalization programme.The spectacular Chinese success story is attributed to the intense and widespread globalization policies followed by China. The fact however is that much of the ground work on this front had already been done in the 1980s, internal changes and developments specifically in the rural and agricultural sector are responsible for the transformation witnessed in China. Large scale and concerted attempts to make the agricultural sector more egalitarian and productive combined with aggressive inputs into infrastructure and human development has scripted the story of change in China. Thus internal factors more than globalization is responsible for the development of the economy in China (Bardhan 2010).