How to Get the Country Moving?

M.L. Sondhi

The Statesman, January 23, 1990

Many Western-oriented scholars are inclined to see Indian democracy as a result of two dichotomous forces: first, the divisive nature of Indian society and social forces, and secondly, the integrative process of the Western parliamentary system which tries to overcome the contradictions of traditional India.

There is little need here to quote examples of how such scholars who predicted "dangerous decades" for India have been proved false prophets. The integrative process of Indian culture has through the ages produced excellent examples of democratic political practice. If on account of historical circumstances, India's democratic identity has been curbed by alien influences, the resulting social and political breakdown should cause no surprise.


An essential prerequisite for the success of the democratic experiment in India is to remove disruptive foreign influences and the authoritarian, dogmatic and hierarchical values that have crept in along with them. The age-old techniques of political accommodation and social tolerance should be given full scope in shaping the identity of our political society. The collective identity of India must be rooted in economic and political freedom. At the same time, India cannot have a nationalist attitude which is imitative of European nationalisms, but must reach out to the emergence of new civilizational imperatives for the coming millennium.

There is still too much cultural discrimination and bigotry in the world and India cannot compete on this basis. The question of "How to get India moving" can only be answered if the political leadership captures the imagination of the millions with the kind of national image that is worth defending in terms of our civilizational heritage. There is a genuine lack of appreciation for the Indian values of tolerance and pluralism in certain cultures which do not cherish democratic values and civil liberties.

By transmitting the values of such unidimensional cultures into the political process, we cannot generate a truly national vision. The collective identity of India must be clearly connected to the maturing of the democratic process in a world society, through politics based on reason, tolerance and human compassion.
The inertia of the Indian scene is the result of the lack of faith of our decision-makers in the traditional democratic values of Indian culture and their abject failure to educate and shape public opinion. Instead of lauding and emulating the achievements of cultures which have plunged the world in violence and bloodshed, the Indian goal must consist in breaking the chains of dogma and showing the way to world unity without destroying the individuality of other nations.

Most Indians wish for an open society where there would be ample space for individuals, families, social groups and social movements to enrich the cultural life of the nation. Unfortunately, till now, the rulers of India have regarded such a society as a threat to their existence. During the four decades after the transfer of power, the ruling establishment has failed to make any fundamental changes in the socio-institutional structures left behind by the imperialist rulers.

The environmental crisis which India is now facing in both its urban and rural life is the direct result of the bureaucratic state created by Jawaharlal Nehru in the name of socialism, and his failure to initiate democratic participatory development. He and his advisers had an obsessive interest in the models of development provided by the European experience, especially that of Britain. Nehru did not realize that the political imagination for building a self-reliant India could not come through the imitation of the West or of Soviet Russia.

The failure of politicians trained in the playgrounds of Eton and Harrow, or in the corridors of the London School of Economics, to bring about a political transformation of India need surprise no one. With the advent of freedom they could only build nationwide bureaucratic institutions but remained singularly unresponsive to local needs. They may have known how to use May's Parliamentary Practice, but they did not know how to help decentralized small-scale production and how to build local political structures.

It is the indifference to local needs that results in exaggerating the importance of "national" institutions which have been imported from Western political culture. In fact, the inter-spaces between our major political institutions are the areas where national self-expression and self-rule (swarajya) have prevented outright distortion of national activities by imported institutions. It is in the inter-spaces that much hopeful activity will be possible in the future.

In the outside world little is known about the grassroots democracy of India, and attention mostly is focused on the Westminster model of parliament. It is easy, therefore, for the world Press to project a misleading picture of traditional elements which wish to obliterate the legacy of British modernization. Movements such as the Cow Protection Movement are castigated as obscurantist rather than valued for their ecological potential. Similarly, the credit for maintaining democratic rule when other Third World states have come under military rule is wrongly attributed to those elements who have not hesitated to make inroads into the Fundamental Rights.

The real resistance to arbitrary rule in India lies in the political will of hundreds of traditionally based opinion groups throughout the country. Nehru's pet themes of "secularism", "socialism" and "non-alignment" could not provide the language of self expression which Indian civilization needs in the contemporary era. If Nehru had lived longer he would have realized that he was losing his hold on the people not because there was a traditional backlash against his modernization programme, but because he was no longer able to express the political and social profile of the nation in its tryst with destiny.
His successor in office, Lal Bahadur Shastri, proved many political prophets wrong because he grasped the essential fact that Indian democracy required traditional methods of accommodation and conciliation.

In discussing the need to modify the political process to meet new challenges, a suggestion is often made to change from the British parliamentary type to the American-type presidential system. This approach ignores the nature of the basic changes which are required to meet the legitimate participatory demands of the people. The formal procedures of government are not sufficiently expressive of the real political dialogue that is needed to revitalize the Indian political system and political processes.

The presidential system will prove even more unsuitable if it is imposed from above. The Americans adopted such a system for a nation of immigrants who did not share a common history, tradition or culture. In India, not only do we have the consciousness developed during the struggle for freedom from imperialism, we also have the unique features of a common classical antiquity, a continuous history and traditions received from a rich and chequered past.


The truth, unfortunately, that is not generally understood is that India can make the best of its opportunities by strengthening its political mind with the traditional ethos of Indian civilization.

It is, therefore, necessary to create as many links as possible between Parliament and the local political structures of the country, so that the parliamentary system can foster democratic participatory development at the grassroots level instead of imposing the apparatus of a centralized bureaucracy. Such a public philosophy will strengthen national unity, foster democracy and promote humane values in the service of peace and harmony.

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