The foundations of our democracy

Maya Tudor | Updated on September 11, 2012 Published on September 11, 2012

Jawaharlal Nehru (centre) at the residence of Sarat Chandra Bose (left) with Subhas Chandra Bose. The social base of the Indian National Congress, as against the League, was conducive to building a democracy. — The Hindu Archives

In the current anti-political milieu, it is worth noting that modern democracy is unthinkable without political parties.

This year, India celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first national elections. Before that election and every election for decades to come, naysayers prophesied the imminent demise of India’s democracy.

Instead, that democracy considerably deepened along formal and substantive dimensions: the dominance of a single party has given way to party alternation and a crucial amendment to India’s constitution has helped attenuate discriminatory distinctions of caste and gender. Sixty years after democratisation then, at a time when myriad corruption scandals highlight the dark underbelly of India’s electoral politics, it is worth remembering that political parties were central to the creation of Indian democracy.

My research angles into the puzzling origins of Indian democracy by comparing it with Pakistan during the three decades before and one decade after their twin independence in 1947.

Pakistan shared the same colonial legacy, similar levels of income per person, inequality and diversity as well as the presence of a dominant political party upon independence. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s post-independence regime trajectory witnessed the speedy creation of an unstable autocracy. What then drove India’s democratisation?

The democratic divergence of India and Pakistan is best explained by two core differences in the nature of their independence movements: the dominant class interest and the strength of the political party built to pursue that interest.


Upon independence, India was able to construct a stable regime because it was governed by a strong political party; and a democratic regime because that party had institutionalised core democratic institutions. Pakistan proved unable to do the same because of the weakness of its dominant political party.

Historically understood class interests first drove the establishment of political movements in colonial India. Pursuant to an educational policy aimed at creating indigenous intermediaries that could help run the colonial state, an urban, high-caste and educated elite began to emerge in 19{+t}{+h} century India.

These individuals came together to petition the colonial government for expanded employment opportunities, eventually establishing the Indian National Congress in 1885. Congress’ organisational goals were class-based, focused as they were on the expansion of colonial councils and civil service.

Even if such reforms were to benefit a tiny fraction of the population, Congress’ means for achieving these goals, through open discussion, debate and majority voting, and the goal of greater indigenous representation itself, were pro-democratic.

The electoral reforms resulting from Congress’ agitation directly threatened both the colonially entrenched landed aristocracy across British India and colonially entrenched Muslims in the United Provinces (UP), spurring on the organisation of Pakistan’s independence movement.

The influence of landed aristocrats everywhere was threatened by the embrace of the electoral principle in 1892, rapidly halving landed representation in provincial Councils. The influence of UP Muslims was also threatened by the adoption of vernacular languages in the UP government, undermining their privileged access to government jobs. These overlapping threats spurred on reactionary political organisation among UP Muslims that culminated in the creation of the Muslim League in 1906. The League was explicitly formed to oppose democratic reforms and, to the extent that such reforms were inevitable, to create extra-proportional Muslim representation. As such, the League was an anti-democratic movement because it sought to prevent more representative politics from emerging.


These political movements transformed into the dominant political parties that inherited the mantle of governance in post-independence India and Pakistan. The movements differed in three respects.

The first, critical respect in which these movements differed was the coherence of their core alliances. Congress’ key alliance was between the educated, urban, middle-class leading Congress and the upwardly mobile dominant peasantry that presided over hierarchical patronage networks in village India. This was a coherent distributive coalition because it represented segments of a middle class interested in promoting socio-economic redistribution away from the colonial state and in preventing redistribution to subordinate social groups.

By contrast, the League’s core alliance was composed of Punjabi Muslim landed aristocrats and a Bengali cultivating tenantry — an incoherent distributive coalition because it represented classes with nearly diametrically opposed distributive interests. Because it represented coherent distributive interests, Congress was able to go on to build a programmatic and organised party.

The second way in which the Indian and Pakistani independence movements evolved differently was in their programmatic nationalisms. Both movements delimited their nations negatively, in opposition to outsiders. But the Congress also defined a set of programmes that guided positive political action.

The League espoused few programmatic principles and, as late as 1946, was willing to forgo its demand for a sovereign state. Because Congress’ commitments involved not just the public rejection of hierarchical caste distinctions but an institutionalised call for universal adult franchise, for example, the content of Congress’ political programme was substantively democratic. The fact of Congress’ programmatic commitments facilitated speedy resolution of federalist conflicts, as opposed to the absence of such commitments within the League.

Thirdly, Indian and Pakistani independence movements differed in their organisational robustness. While India’s independence movement created a relatively disciplined party organisation that possessed effective leadership and responded to bottom-up demands, Pakistan’s independence movement remained a top-heavy party organisation with little institutional independence from its charismatic leader.


After independence, Congress’ centralised but representative intra-party organisation rapidly resolved key state-building conflicts. The absence of a programmatic and well-organised political party in Pakistan meant that class-based conflict resulted in a constitutional stalemate that invited military intervention in 1958.

In short, the nature of the political parties built to promote class interests before independence explain India’s and Pakistan’s divergent democracies after independence.

Today, when many observers bemoan political corruption, it is worth emphasising that modern democracy is unthinkable without political parties.

(The author is a fellow in politics at St John’s College, Oxford University.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

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Published on September 11, 2012
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