World’s Largest Democracy
By R.S. Karunaratne
“About 2600 years ago the Greeks laid claim to an invention. Today it ranks the most important invention of mankind. Born of resistance to tyranny, the invention was a potent form of wishful thinking that still appeals to the people all over the world. The Greeks called it Demokratia (Democracy),” said Nagalingam Kumarakuruparan, an Indologist based in Hyderabad in an email interview with Ceylon Today.
India is the world’s largest democracy. This is because of its leaders who led the Independence Movement and their vision and firm commitment to parliamentary democracy and their careful nurturing of it in the formative years. India is not only one of the world’s largest democracies but also one of the most stable of the States to emerge from the clutches of colonialism.
The foundations of the rare phenomenon in either Asia or Africa are seen in Indian society, the ideas and beliefs of her people and the institutions of Government and politics which have developed on the subcontinent in a process of interaction between what was indigenous to India and the many external influences brought to bear on the country by economic, political, and ideological contact with the western world.
Wishful thinking – longing to change the present world’s political system into a different and better future – is often ridiculed, but it is a regular feature of the human condition. Pursuing ideals is a natural human endeavour down the ages.
A similar idea flourished in the eastern part of the world in Bihar, India. Bihar’s past provides the background to the history of ancient India.
Vaishali is one of the prominent places connected with India’s past. It is in Bihar which was the capital of the Lichchavi and Vajji Republic, and a well-known centre of republican or democratic activities. There was a time when no king ruled this part of the country and more than 7,000 representatives of the people carried on the work of administration. The situation was quite similar to what prevailed in Athens in Greece.
The administration of justice was so good that Gautama Buddha himself paid it a handsome tribute. Vaishali was without doubt the fountain head of democracy at the time. Democratic ideas were evaluated and practised by Westerners and Easterners a long time ago. The idea of democracy is not new to the non-Western world or at least to the Indian subcontinent.
The people of India made a historic commitment to the idea of democracy a long time ago. They believed that democracy was an ideal to be attained and it was a system of government to be instituted to overcome the challenges of the modern world. Modern scholars has shown how diverse and complex was India’s socio-economic and political development. It eschews any simple understanding of India’s political development as a clash between imperialism and nationalism, or the making of a new nation.
The complexity reflects many of the continuing ambiguities and inequalities in India’s life pattern and suggests why the structures of the State are now being questioned. India’s dilemmas are not hers alone; they also raise economic, political, and social issues of profound significance throughout the contemporary world.
India’s recent historical experience and development have been remarkable. Events in the Indian subcontinent have been significant not just for those whose home India now is, who number between one billion and 1.3 billion. They concern us all because they mirror many of the critical issues facing the whole world in the latter part of the 20th century. There was increasing interaction of people and continents wracked by political and social turbulence within nations and major international conflicts. Yet the world community is concerned with the dignity of human life and the value of the earth’s resources.
India also reflects many of the forces which have been created in the world. For instance, it was the first non-white nation to emerge from colonial control and its independence from Britain in 1947 undermined the whole fabric of the British Empire which had dominated world affairs in the preceding decades.
Standing at a sensitive juncture of the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, it has not only retained its territorial integrity but also political stability. Moreover, India has become adept at organising its Government and politics through democratic institutions and civil service built somewhat ironically on foundations laid by its imperial masters. Its economic advancement is admirable. Yet it has still to solve major economic and social problems.
Modes of administration, ways of consulting opinion, strategies for making decisions, framework of law, and the organisation of force – all these are the outer shell of political life, but they also profoundly influence it. India should be given credit for building institutions throughout which social, ideological, and economic forces are channelled. Institutions, ideas and the nature of society are essential to understanding the origin and viability of India’s political system. India’s experiences with democracy are lessons for other budding Afro-Asian democracies.
Indian democracy at work can generate endless discussions. The political structures mean first the provision of regular mechanisms for registering the people’s wishes about who should govern them and what their policies should be, and for providing a check on the actions of the government if it disregards these wishes or deprives the people of such basic rights such as the freedom of speech and association. Such mechanisms were laid down in the 1950 Constitution as the basis of legitimate government.
The mechanisms consisted of a structure of political life in elections and agents of the government and their specific rights for the individual citizens. The Judiciary was the ultimate remedy for the preservation of the Constitution. Besides such participatory aspects of democracy, there is the issue of the uses to which the structure of the Government are subject to and whether they promote the expressed wishes of the people, though the two are clearly and inevitably interconnected and react upon each other.
Indian democracy has evolved through the ages. Today India has a vital role to play in making its democracy a living reality rather than a hollow shell. Indian democracy may not be perfect and at times chaotic, but it should succeed for a better democratic world. We cannot ignore India’s problems for many of them are our own. The democratic world is experiencing certain disturbing developments. India should take a close look at them. Experiences of Western democracies may be relevant to issues cropping up in India. Meanwhile political observers believe that India should be careful of its public image and credibility. However, India still remains a beacon of hope for Afro-Asian democracies.