How India went from Dictatorship to Democracy

I have this viewpoint that when we got Independence, we were actually a Benevolent Socialist Dictatorship and over the years we have graduated to a flourishing democracy. Why do I say that? Look at the scenario from 1947 onwards. Did we have any choice but to support the Congress? Sounds a bit like the Communist Party of Russia/China to me. Did we have any choice but to support Nehru till death? Sounds a bit like Lenin and Stalin to me. Could you become a politician? A big no. (Even today most of politics is reserved for Muscle,  Money and Dynasty) If an average citizen wanted to be an entrepreneur, could he? A bigger no. When the whole world had colour TVs, could you buy them? Think imported. Think big bucks. Think TV license. And what about those years of waits for gas connections and scooters? That doesn’t sound like a healthy democracy to me.

Everything begins with choice—Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded

While democracy has dozens of elements, to me one of the biggest components is Choice. The power to choose your leader, party, life, job… And choice is something most Indian citizens didn’t have many decades ago. However all that has changed drastically. Today we are spoiled for choices in every sphere of life.

It’s been a slow and steady journey and I’m listing below the key events that shaped our journey from Dictatorship to Democracy:

The Death of Nehru, 1964

For 17 years we had no choice but to follow Nehru’s fancies, Nehru’s vision and Nehrunomics. He was seen as foreign policy genius. But the unresolved seeds of the Kashmir dispute were planted during his tenure, the fruits of which we are still eating today. We limped through the China war and his brainchild NAM is dead and forgotten. So much for being a world statesman. But I probably have more grouses with his brand of economics, which got us nowhere and kept the country in poverty for decades. While in the West the poor have clothes and makeshift homes and are short of food, in India they don’t even have clothes and shelter, and are starving to death. Mahatma Gandhi was spot on when he called for the disbanding the Congress party after Independence. That would have given us a wider choice in life from 1947 itself.

Indira Challenged, 1966

While most people think Indira Gandhi was dictatorial and ruled her party with an iron fist, the truth is that she was challenged from the beginning of her reign to the end. She faced a revolt in 1966, the Congress split in 1969 and she had to take the help of the Communists and Socialists after that. Despite the victory in the 1971 war and the subsequent landslide, she faced a nationwide revolt and had to enforce Emergency. Even then, Sanjay Gandhi was the real power behind the throne. She also had to sit in the opposition from 1977-80. Post-Nehru, no PM could take the party or people for granted. A lesson Rajiv learnt very bitterly when his party’s seat share was halved in Parliament in 1989.

A State Bastion Falls, 1967

DMK stormed to power in 1967 and the states slowly started finding their voices after that. One reason why this was a landmark was that more than 40 years later, we are yet to see a Congress Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the second choice turned out to be AIADMK. After that, we had the CPM in West Bengal in 1977, TDP in 1982… Federalization was complete when Uttar Pradesh fell in 1989. At the regional level atleast, for better or worse, the voters are spoiled for choice.

Change at the Centre, 1977

In 1977, India became a two-party system. Well almost. The only difference was that the second party was Janata Party in 1977, Janata Dal in 1989 and BJP in 1998.

The Public Interest Litigation and Judicial Activism, Eighties onwards

While politicians all over the country started asserting themselves, it was now the turn of the judges. The concept of PILs was unheard of till the Emergency and it picked up steam after that. Sometimes a letter or a telegram has been enough to initiate court action. A Gujarati advocate was felicitated recently for filing as many as 200 PILs, many of which yielded concrete results. The high point was probably in 1996 when courts effectively prevented Prime Minister Narasimha Rao from interfering too much with the CBI in the St Kitt’s Forgery Case.

The Rise of the Bureaucrat, 1990

Till 1990, the Chief Election Commissioner was a mere statistic. By the time TN Seshan left office in 1996, it was a powerful body that made politicians quiver. Seshan took on the high and mighty, forged ahead with electoral reforms and proposed something as basic as a voter-ID card, which has almost become a must today.
Probably taking cue from Seshan, GR Khairnar, Deputy Commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, took on then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar during the same period. An important lesson was that any minister or bureaucrat could shake up the process and bring about a change if he or she really wanted to.

The Second Independence, 1991

While all the above examples gave power to people outside the Prime Minister’s office and the Congress Party, liberalization firmly put power into the hands of the people. This was probably the biggest economic event post-1947 and I would go so far as to call it our Second Independence. Finally the average Indian citizen was free to choose what he or she wanted. Fridges and TVs became common even in the lowest strata of society. Professions opened up beyond the regular medicine and engineering. One could become an entrepreneur if he or she wanted to. Wonder what would have happened had we liberalized in 1947 itself and had not gone on the path of socialism leaning towards communism.

Coalitions (and non-Congress ones to boot) Can Last, 1998-2004

While you can be cynical of coalitions and call them weak and ineffective, the other side of the coin is that they spell co-operation and a distribution of power at all levels. While the Congress has been a perennial choice, no one could have thought that coalitions like the NDA and UPA would actually last. Even today the BJP isn’t marginalized. 120 seats are enough of a platform to bounce back and give the voters another chance and choice. One mustn’t forget that Congress had even lesser seats in 1999. And look where they are today.

Relevance of the President’s Post, 2002

While we’ve had able presidents like Rajendra Prasad, philosophers like S Radhakrishnan and others like Zail Singh (who almost set in motion events to put a Prime Minister out of office), there has been none like Abdul Kalam. An energetic non-politician professional who inspired thousands of school children all over the country. Today all sorts of people are running the nation and anyone can become a hero from any field.

It’s Crowded at the Top, 2009

2009 was the year of Manmohan Singh the government head, Sonia the power behind the throne and Rahul the organizer. Rarely have so many run the Congress party together. Indira became a minister after Nehru died. Rajiv took over the reigns fully only after Indira was assassinated. Narasimha Rao worked free of the dynasty. But this is probably the first time when a troika is building the party together. The more the merrier.

We’ve come a long way from One Leader, One Party, One Life, One Choice… I believe that an Indian citizen who steps out in 2009 has a greater political and personal choice; greater choice of career; greater choice to pick his city of residence; greater choice to pick up various services… and that’s true democracy.

Now all these changes may not be necessarily be good, but atleast we only have ourselves to blame if things go wrong.

© Sunil Rajguru