28 January 2022 14:51:33 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The 72-year journey of the Indian Republic

A view of the Rajpath after the Republic Day Celebrations in New Delhi

The Republic Day celebrated on January 26 every year was the day India, in 1950, broke all ties with monarchies and formally became a Republic by adopting the Indian Constitution. The Constitution itself was a voluminous document that took almost four years to prepare, during which time, the country also endured a violent and tragic partition.

The Constitution was a result of the exhaustive deliberations and debate in the 299-member Constituent Assembly and elected on a limited franchise. Universal franchise was the most significant right conferred on the Indian citizens by the Constitution. A right that we take for granted today was an issue that was debated upon extensively in the Constituent Assembly and there were some members who were against it. But in the end, leaders like BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, KM Munshi, and others, plumped for universal franchise which was seen as a revolutionary move then.

But in 1950, barely three years of independence, and where a vast majority of people were desperately poor and illiterate, what were the odds of democracy succeeding? Not very great as India did not have any of the pre-requisites of forging a democratic polity. The country was religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse. It did not then have a large, progressive, educated middle-class which is often seen as a bulwark of democracy.

Not many, both within the country and outside, gave India a chance to survive as a democracy. But survive it did and how. When many newly decolonised nations in the developing world were lurching towards authoritarianism, India’s most remarkable achievement was that it not only survived as a democracy but even prospered as one.

The achievements

The deepening of democracy, the conduct of free and fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power from one government to the other are some of the obvious successes of the Indian republic. That Indians vote enthusiastically and in large numbers is proof of our democratic ethos. That unlike in many countries in the West, the poor vote in large numbers in India, which goes to show the faith the underprivileged in the country have in the power of their vote.

The 1950s and 60s were also decades when many important educational and scientific institutions were set up. The IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, and the regional engineering colleges (now called National Institutes of Technologies). Many other important scientific institutions such as the Department of Atomic Energy, the Department of Space, CSIR, ICSSR, and others too, were established during this period.

The pitfalls

Despite the rapid strides taken so far, even after seven decades of being a republic there are still far too many Indians who are poor. Even the ones who have managed to stay above the poverty line are in constant danger of slipping below it. The biggest failure of the State in these last seven decades is in the poor delivery of public goods — public education, health, physical and social infrastructure (clean drinking water). It is in these areas that the nation has been found severely wanting.

The Covid pandemic cruelly exposed the chronically underfunded and pathetic state of public health infrastructure in the country.

Democratic deficit

But apart from the social and economic issues, there is a growing feeling, both among commentators within and outside the country, that the success of democracy in India is being rather narrowly viewed through the prism of elections. The successful and peaceful conduct of national and State elections seem to be viewed as an end in itself. There is also a growing sense of disquiet of institutions’ autonomy being diluted and becoming excessively deferential to the government of the day.

There are many who have been lamenting the creeping majoritarianism tendencies in the country. When a European think-tank, a couple years ago, called India and “electoral autocracy”, there was, not surprisingly a huge outcry from the government and sections of the media and society.

Viewed from that prism the farmers’ peaceful one-year protest, which made the government repeal the three controversial farm laws can be seen as a triumph of democracy. Also as Mukulika Banerjee, Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics, recently remarked in an interview on The Wire news portal, a deeper and thorough study of Panchayat and urban body elections in India is missing as most studies so far have concentrated on national and State Assembly elections.

A study of Panchayat and local body elections will tell us how democracy is functioning at the grassroots in India. Democracy and republican values are always a work in progress, never to be taken for granted. But despite the blips, India can be justly proud of its democratic journey. To quote Banerjee from her recent column, “In a Republic, citizens are vigilant, but not vigilantes.”