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PAST & PRESENT

Verdicts on India

By Ramachandra Guha

In early 1967, The Times of London ran a series of articles on `India's Disintegrating Democracy'. In contrast to this gloominess was a more contemporary estimate, this time provided by The Guardian ... . A comparison.

PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

DEEPLY PESSIMISTIC: It was predicted that with the problems then, the ordered structure of society would collapse ... . Here, Madras in 1967.

IN the first weeks of 1967, the Times of London carried a series of articles on "India's Disintegrating Democracy". Written by their Delhi correspondent, Neville Maxwell, these assessed the upcoming General Elections, the fourth held since Independence, and the first since Jawaharlal Nehru's death. The articles were deeply pessimistic about the prospect for democracy in India. As Maxwell wrote, "famine is threatening, the administration is strained and universally believed to be corrupt, the government and the governing party have lost public confidence and belief in themselves as well". These various crises had created an "emotional readiness for the rejection of Parliamentary democracy". The "politically sophisticated Indians" whom Maxwell spoke to expressed "a deep sense of defeat, an alarmed awareness that the future is not only dark but profoundly uncertain".

`Crisis is upon India'

Maxwell's own view was that "the crisis is upon India — he could spy `the already fraying fabric of the nation itself", with the states "already beginning to act like sub-nations". His conclusion was unequivocal: that while Indians would soon vote in "the fourth — and surely last — general election", "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed".

The imminent collapse of democracy in India, thought Maxwell, would provoke a frantic search for "an alternative antidote for the society's troubles". Three options presented themselves. The first was represented by the Jan Sangh (forerunner of today's Bharatiya Janata Party). This would play the Hindu card but fail, since it was as corrupt and faction-ridden as the other parties, and because the South would reject its over-zealous promotion of the Hindi language. The second possibility was an army coup, but this too "seems out of the question in India" because of the complex federal system. To succeed, there would have to be 17 simultaneous coups in the States, as well as one in the centre.

`Army coup'

While a straightforward coup was unlikely, Maxwell thought that the army would nonetheless come to rule India through indirect means. As he predicted, "in India, as present trends continue, within the ever-closing vice of food and population, maintenance of an ordered structure of society is going to slip out of reach of an ordered structure of civil government and the army will be the only alternative source of authority and order. That it will be drawn into a civil role seems inevitable, the only doubt is how?"

Maxwell answered his query by suggesting that "a mounting tide of public disorder, fed perhaps by pockets of famine", would lead to calls for a strengthening of the office of the President. The Rashtrapathi would be asked to literally act as the Father of the Nation, "to assert a stabilizing authority over the centre and the country". Backing him would be the army, which would come to exercise "more and more civil authority". In this scenario, the President would become "either the actual source of political authority, or a figure-head for a group composed possibly of army officers and a few politicians ... ".

Reality today

Forty years down the road, we can perhaps say that Maxwell's predictions have been fulfilled in part, modest part. The BJP has been shown to be as corrupt and faction-ridden as (say) the Congress, the army has been called in more often to quell civil disorder, and the President is no longer a complete figure-head. Yet his (Maxwell's) extreme scepticism about parliamentary democracy, his announcement of its imminent demise, has turned out to be very mistaken indeed.

Rather than use the benefit of hindsight, let us contrast to Maxwell's gloominess a more upbeat contemporary estimate. This was provided by an anonymous correspondent of another British journal, The Guardian. His assessment of that election campaign of 1967 began by mentioning how "the Delhi correspondent of a British newspaper whose thundering misjudgments in foreign affairs have become a byword has expressed the view that Indian democracy is disintegrating". Then he added: "My own view after three weeks travelling round the country and talking to all and sundry, is that Indian democracy is now for the first time coming fully alive".

The Guardian man dissented from the patronising assumption that whereas democracy was deeply rooted in the West, "in India it is only a superficial plant". He pointed out that the "immemorial structure of Indian life was shaken to its foundations by the national movement". For "the Indian national leaders, especially Gandhi, saw that India needed to be emancipated not only from the British, but also from what was debilitating in her own tradition". Thus they turned to social reform and democracy, to forces of change that might effectively "challenge the forces of inertia".

India's problems remained huge, said the Guardian correspondent, and "not all of them have been tackled wisely or well. But all of them can best be tackled within the framework of a democratic system which is one of the supreme achievements of modern history and from which we [Britons] ourselves have quite a lot to learn".

Perhaps the praise in this last sentence is somewhat hyperbolic.

Still, corrupt and corroded as it might be, parliamentary democracy in India has so far outwitted (and outlasted) its numerous obituarists.

E-mail: ramguha@vsnl.com

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