The Nature of Indian Democracy
Sumantra Bose

Introduction Sumantra Bose, Ralf Dahrendorf fellow and lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was co-director of his mother's successful campaigns to enter the Indian parliament in 1996, 1998 and 1999. In this interview, he says that his experience at the grass roots of politics emphasised to him the importance of local struggles over abstract political issues, when it came to winning over the electorate. He argues that the fragmentation of parliamentary democracy in India into dozens of smaller, issue-based local parties and groups is a natural reflection of the diversity and heterogeneity of Indian society and does not ultimately undermine a concept of common Indian citizenship.

What direct and personal experience of Indian elections and democracy in action have you had?

Sumantra Bose: I have had some experience in the last few years. I have been a co-director of my mother's campaigns to enter the lower popularly elected house of the Indian Parliament, in three successive elections, in 1996, 1998 and then again in 1999.

Normally, the term of each parliament is five years, so you may be wondering why it has been so frequent. It's been frequent because we have been witnessing, in the last five or six years, a situation of unstable hung parliaments, where no party or no bloc has a clear-cut majority of the seats. What has resulted is the shifting sands of coalition politics, and some of those governments cobbled together by disparate elements have not lasted, and that's why elections have been so frequent.

But it has been fascinating to work on these campaigns, and what I've realised while working in the Greater Calcutta Metropolitan Region of West Bengal State, in eastern India, is that all meaningful politics is ultimately local. It might sound a bit clichéd but working on these campaigns, having that kind of hands-on experience, has really helped me to appreciate the importance of the local level of grassroots in a mass democratic politics. And I've also come to understand what sorts of issues matter to people, the electorate, at the grassroots level. I've realised that it's bread-and-butter issues most of the time, rather than abstract political questions or struggles.

For example, very few people among my voters are concerned with the insurgency in Kashmir which, of course, hits the international headlines quite often. Most of them are also not concerned over highly charged macro-level political controversies, such as the debate over whether a temple or a mosque should be built at the disputed site in Ayodhya in northern India. What matters to people is whether their village has a clean drinking-water connection, whether there's a paved road from their village to the nearest bus stop or to the nearest market town. The state of transportation: is there a bus line? Is there a train service available? are the roads in usable condition? Does this particular neighbourhood have an electric connection? If not, why not? And, of course, primary health care: is there a primary health-care facility close by? How far is the nearest specialised hospital?

These are the kinds of issues--bread-and-butter issues--that affect daily life, that really matter to people at the grassroots, the local level. And they expect their elected politicians to deliver on these sorts of things.

Does this have any effect on what you think, today, is the most decisive trend in Indian politics? What do you think that trend may be?

Bose: It is regionalisation: the regionalisation of political life and of party politics. As you might know, Indian politics, for several decades after independence in 1947, was dominated by one party, called the Indian National Congress, which led the independence movement against Great Britain. However, that monolith has crumbled since.

Today's Congress is a pale shadow of its former self. There has been a process of long-term decline which really accelerated in the last ten years or so. There's another party that tried to fill the emerging vacuum that was created by the terminal long-term decline of the Congress as a political force. And this, of course, is the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. But the BJP has only partially been able to fill the void left by the Congress. It has made important advances in the last ten years, but it is nowhere near a situation where it can hope to win a parliamentary majority on its own. That is completely unrealistic. So we have a much weakened Congress, a BJP that is stronger but not as strong as its supporters had hoped ten years ago. And that still left a substantial void, a vacuum, in Indian political life, which has been filled by a proliferation of parties which are organised to represent various kinds of sectional interests, the interests for a particular state or province in the country, the interests of a particular ethnic or linguistic group living in that state or that region. The interests of a particular caste group or even a sub-caste group, and so on.

The key players in Indian political life today are this plethora of so-called regional parties, parties representing sectional ethnic, caste, linguistic interests or some combination thereof. For example, in the present parliament, the BJP and the Congress taken together hold only a bare majority of the seats, about 300 out of 545. And the remaining 245 to 250 seats are held by a menagerie of these smaller regional parties, who are therefore not only very powerful actors in their home regions or their home states, but also, increasingly, have the decisive say on who governs at the centre, who governs India at the level of the national government.

Would you say that the Indian political system is more representative now that there are so many different parties and interests?

Bose: I would say so, yes. Some people are concerned about this process of splintering of the party-political system and they fear that if, left unchecked, it might even lead to the break-up of the country in the longer term. I think that's unduly alarmist. And I do think that if there are many ethnic, linguistic caste, regional and other types of social groups in the country, who were not effectively represented in the political system before, but have rectified the situation by organising their own political parties now, there's nothing absolutely wrong with it. It means a further enrichment and deepening of Indian democracy and Indian federalism, if you will. The social map of India is a crazy patchwork of diverse groups. India is one of the most diverse countries of the world, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-confessional, multi-everything, basically. So I would argue that if the social map of India is this diverse, then nothing is wrong with its political map reflecting the social realities.

Do you think there would be more of a problem organising and implementing policy, with so many parties. Does that have any impact at all?

Bose: I don't think so. The Indian political system has never been renowned for its efficiency, anyway. And probably efficiency might improve in a relative sense if, in fact, as is happening now, demands are raised and organised at the grass-roots level and then presented to higher authorities. If people have a greater voice in articulating what is it that they want and, as I've said already, what they want above all, in most parts of the country, is development.

Is there any danger that a concept of common citizenship is undermined?

Bose: That is a tricky question. I don't think so. I would say, on balance, no. There is a fairly robust sense of being Indian in most parts of the country, though not all. There are some chronic trouble spots and unintegrated regions. But, for the most part, most people in most parts of the country do have a sense of Indian identity. Of course, it's not a uniform, monolithic sense of Indian identity. People have different ways of being Indian in different parts of the country; it depends on their social background, it depends on the region they're coming from. So, I would like to stress that there are many different ways of being Indian. There's no one way of having an Indian identity.

Of course, the building block of any Indian national identity that is viable in the longer term must be respect for people's other identities, their religion, their caste, their ethno-linguistic group, the region of the country they come from, and so on. And if people feel that their more primordial identities are respected by the state, are recognised and validated, then there's no reason why they should not also feel, simultaneously, Indian, and that's how most people feel.

I could be talking about myself. I have a very strong sense of belonging to my particular ethno-linguistic community, the Bengalis of eastern Indian. But, at the same time, I do have a sense of loyalty towards the Indian Union as well. I see no contradiction between these two loyalties.

What issues unite the nation and make Indians feel like Indians?

Bose: That would probably lead me to talk a bit about the more negative aspects of Indian nationalism and Indian national identity. For example, there is a great deal of hostility towards a neighbouring country, Pakistan, in India, though it's not as widespread as some might think, and by no means everybody is hostile to Pakistan.

But, for example, when the Pakistan Army infiltrated a barren region in the disputed province in Kashmir, and the Indians reacted with their own show of military force to drive the intruders out, as they saw it, and restore the line of control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, in Kashmir--that united the country. This localised war continued for about three months, in fact, between May and late July of 1999. And it led to an outpouring of jingoistic patriotism, verging on the hysterical at some points. So it is basically negative things that unites people these days.

But it is a very good question because it shows that India is now many Indias. There are many different parts of the country that are totally different from each other. Yet, when push comes to shove, they do have a latent sense of a shared identity and a shared interest.

This feature was taken from an interview with Sumantra Bose conducted at the London School of Economics and Political Science on November 16, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.