Indian democracy: successes, failures and the way forward

Indian flag

by Lipin Ram

What is the nature of the current crisis of Indian democracy? Does the contemporary hegemony of right wing ideological and political forces in the country signal the terminal decline of the Indian democratic experiment?  What resources in India’s past and present provide directions for its journey into a democratic future? These are some of the questions explored in this episode of Democracy in Question? (Season 2, Episode 3). It features the well-known Indian psephologist, political theorist and activist Yogendra Yadav, whose new book Making Sense of Indian Democracy: Theory as Practice (2020) brings together essays on a variety of topics that chart the course of the world’s largest democracy through the second half of the 20th century.

Yadav is clear about one thing from the outset in this conversation: there are no easy binaries – success/failure, democracy/not-a-democracy – that can help with understanding and characterizing the current juncture at which the Indian nation finds itself. In fact, India’s democracy has always defied expectations, as well as conventional academic wisdom.

No theorist of democratization and modernization would have given the young democratic republic much of a chance in its early days – marred by abject poverty and illiteracy, rife with social divisions, and replete with mind-bending diversity of languages and regions, it had stood in complete opposition to the Western experience with democracy. It was the perilous navigation of these rifts and deficiencies by the Indian state in its early decades that Yadav and colleagues termed the ‘state-nation’ approach, in contrast to the nation-state approach derived directly from modern European history that was and continues to remain dominant in global discourse regarding democracy. Similarly, the current moment, which Yadav denotes with the term ‘democracy capture’, is neither an unexpected twist in the plot nor a somewhat delayed fulfillment of pre-given prophecy. Rather, it is an instance of a country falling victim to its own successes. Yadav illustrates this with the example of India’s regional political parties and their relationship with the issue of federalism:

So, a country that taught the world how not to deal with diversities and how to have a more confident way of embracing diversities is now going back to a failed European model. Why has that become possible? I have half an answer. It is precisely because those regional political formations were accepted. It meant that the assertion of regional identity did not require a political struggle. And that I think is where the problem lies, which is that the regional aspirations, the diversities were accommodated too soon, too easily. So, as a result, we have regional political parties, which are not regionalist anymore. They have too easily given into a politics which looks after their own interest without looking at the broader questions of what you call federalism.

Unlike many other commentators of contemporary Indian politics, Yadav is not afraid to look inward; in fact, he thinks it necessary for a re-evaluation of the country’s progressive and liberal politics. Two strategies of Indian liberals have gone very wrong, and this has played an important role in ceding ground to the Hindu right: one, the complete abjuration of nationalism, and two, a deracinated celebration of secularism that strove to put as much distance between itself and the religious traditions of the country.

Regarding the first, Yadav reminds us that the roots of India’s nationalism lie in the anti-colonial Indian national movement that incorporated within it both a vision of equality as well as a readiness to connect with struggles for justice and independence in other parts of the world including South America, Africa and South East Asia. This is most definitely not a legacy to be ashamed about, regardless of how European discourses tend to frame nationalism. Secondly, the liberal elites have for long espoused a version of secularism that refuses to engage with the deeply held and pervasive religious traditions of the country. Instead of secularization, this has produced “culturally impoverished vacuous Hindus who are susceptible to any propaganda in the name of Hinduism. The antidote to that is not turning our back to religion. The only way is to take a deep dive into religions and to be able to say, "What the BJP is saying is not Hinduism," and do something similar to all religions. To my mind, that is the only way of saving secularism."

Yadav is a firm believer in the politics of movements; he thinks that we need to shift attention from electoral politics to the former. The on-going farmer’s movement in the country - which completes six months of protests against the central government's controversial farm bills passed in September 2020 – is a great example of how long-term mobilization and collective protest can mount a strong challenge to oppressive state power. Swaraj India, the political party founded by Yadav, is based on such faith in the power of social movements –what will turn the tide on the current ruling dispensation, according to him, are such movements. The farmer’s movement to tackle the deep agrarian crisis in India, as well as the youth protest against unemployment, have the potential to play a decisive role in bringing change to the current political landscape in India.

Lipin Ram is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

As opposed to the European project of homogenizing national communities, Yadav argues in his 2011 book Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies, co-authored with Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, that India followed a different strategy in order to deal with its diversities. This was based on ‘unity in diversity’, and the idea that political boundaries need not coincide with cultural boundaries. This allowed, the argument goes, for the inclusion of disparate linguistic, religious, cultural and regional identities into the idea of India, a state-nation, rather than a nation-state.

‘Democracy capture’ refers to a politics where, "Democracy is both the object of this capture, and it is the subject of this capture.” Coming to power through seemingly democratic procedures, such politics then seeks to undermine the substance of democratic values. See Making Sense of Indian Democracy: Theory as Practice (Yadav 2020)

See the Democracy in Question podcast episode transcript on this site 


Since November 2020, thousands of farmers have been protesting the highly controversial farm bills passed by the central government of India in September 2020. The bills have been widely criticized for loosening the rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce - rules that have protected India's farmers from the free market for decades ( The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the organization co-ordinating a number of farmer’s groups and leading the protest, have demanded the revocation of all three laws as well as a legal guarantee for the preservation of wholesale markets and Minimum Support Price (MSP) for agricultural produce.