Q&A: ‘India is heading towards a full ethnic democracy’

As India holds elections, two leading editors question whether it is the one of the world’s most successful democracies.

India elections [Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Al Jazeera]
India has been holding its seven-phase general elections that began on April 11 [Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Al Jazeera]

India has been hailed as one of the most successful democracies in South Asia.

It has conducted periodic elections for the past seven decades without a break barring a brief period between 1975 and 1977, when the country was placed under emergency rule.

However, a new book, Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election – published in March, has raised questions regarding representation and social justice in the world’s largest democracy.


The book editors, Irfan Ahmad and Pralay Kunungo, spoke on a range of issues facing the South Asian country in an email interview with Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera: Your book Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election advances an argument to understand electoral democracy as an algebra of warfare-welfare. Can you explain?

Irfan Ahmad: In India, the state is seen as “mai-baap [mother-father]”. The premise is that as parents care for their children, the state does the same for its citizens. The state is thus welfare-oriented. This, however, erases the violence (many) parents inflict on their children, and how the state deals with “enemy” citizens within and “foreign enemies” externally. We use warfare-welfare to capture this dynamic.

The book also deploys warfare to mean politics of enmity. The history of modern democracies is enmeshed in genocidal enmity which is evident, among others, in the extermination of aboriginals in Australia and the US.

Ahmad and Kunungo have raised questions regarding lack of representation in India's democracy [Courtesy: Ahmad and Kunungo]
Ahmad and Kunungo have raised questions regarding lack of representation in India’s democracy [Courtesy: Ahmad and Kunungo]

Even the notional equality remains inimical to people outside a democracy, a territorial entity. Liberal democracy’s obsession with choice seems laughable because no one chooses the territory of her own birth.

Al Jazeera: You have written that India was conceived as a majoritarian democracy. Can you elaborate? How does it fare compared with other democracies in South Asia?

Ahmad: Indian democracy seems more like a spectacle of crass majoritarianism than an inspiring example where dissenters – Muslims, Christians and other silenced and marginalised groups – can fearlessly express themselves.

Instead of addressing the country’s failing economy, systemic corruption, the problems ordinary people confront, India’s ruling party has promoted anti-Muslim rhetoric to win elections. The Congress party mostly plays as BJP’s team B.

Modi's BJP has indulged in anti-Muslim rhetoric during the elections [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]
Modi’s BJP has indulged in anti-Muslim rhetoric during the elections [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

This majoritarian impulse is traceable to India’s birth as a democracy when the Congress enacted constitutional acts, such as beef ban, that discriminate against Muslims and other marginalised groups. Nehru may have been personally “secular”; policies he pursued were not. Nor were most Congress leaders or institutions they headed.

Unlike India, neighbours Bangladesh and Pakistan have never voted an Islamist party to power. The irony is that while “democratic” Bangladesh has effectively banned Jamaat-e-Islami for its religious politics, the BJP, which unfailingly fuses religion and politics to subjugate religious minorities is touted as an emblem of democracy.

Western leaders, the “guardians” of democracy, see no contradiction in their opposition to religious politics of one type and the embrace of another. Like Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil, pro-Sinhala/Buddhist democracy, India is heading towards a full ethnic democracy.

Al Jazeera: Should the success of democracy be decided based on regular elections or disbursal of social justice?

Ahmad: Globally, elections have become costly and dry rituals. Unemployment, redundancy, social insecurity, boredom-generating society and so on are seen less as political and more as psychological, legal or statistical problems.

Indian democracy has failed the marginalised by replacing justice with bare, “staged” elections.

The “road shows” politicians organise show nothing except their own faces because actual challenges ordinary people face largely remain concealed. While the media shows trivial details about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s love for mango, the kind of clothes he wears, it tells pretty little about the true faces of ministers like Jayant Sinha who garlanded criminals convicted for lynching.

Denial of justice to victims of the state-mediated massacres – whether of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, 1996 anti-landless massacres (in Bihar’s Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe), 2002 anti-Muslim riots and many more – militates against any genuine democracy.


True, a democracy routinely holds election. However, in many ways, the current Indian election is against democracy for it does not follow the spirit of democracy and has barely any place for social justice, much less for truth and humane hope.

India today significantly resembles Germany of the 1930s. The current propaganda of “love jihad” tell the public that Muslims receive foreign funding to lure Hindu girls to ultimately convert them. Such concerns about Hindu girls on the part of Hindu populists resonates with Mein Kampf according to which: “The … Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, spying on the unsuspicious German girls he plans to seduce.”

Since the promise that democracy would solve rampant political and social injustice, rising economic inequality, wars within and among nations, social misery and so on has remained unmet, contemporary democracy seems conceptually exhausted. Justice must be the core of democracy – a democracy that, as philosopher Jacques Derrida observed, is yet to come.

Al Jazeera: What’s the reason behind the electoral success of Hindu right wing in India? Is it a recent phenomenon?

Pralay Kunungo: The electoral/political success of the Hindu right wing in India has many reasons. The Hindu right has a long legacy covering a span of a century, drawing sustenance from a majoritarian ideology which claims India to be a Hindu nation.

... India's resilient and unique diversity and pluralism would always act as a strong bulwark against any authoritarian leadership to succeed

by Pralay Kunungo, author

Though it remained peripheral during India’s freedom struggle and even after India’s partition in 1947 on the basis of religion, it gradually and systematically entrenched itself into various spheres of society. Sustained ideological, organisational and mobilisation work of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the fountainhead of the Hindu right, helped its political front, the BJP, to control today India’s state power.

Besides, loss of credibility of the Indian National Congress, the dominant political party, due to corruption, non-governance, nepotism, absence of strong leadership, made the task of the Hindu right easy.

Al Jazeera: How are 2019 elections different from 2014?

Kunungo:The Hindu right primarily fought the 2014 elections on the plank of “development for all” and Narendra Modi promised to bring “good days” in the lives of everyone, particularly for the poor and the youth. He received a massive mandate and became the prime minister. Though he began his tenure with many positive initiatives on governance, curiously, he simultaneously allowed the right-wing vigilantes to unleash violence and intimidation against minorities, particularly Muslims. He himself used polarising strategy to win elections in states. Thus governance lost direction and many promises were not fulfilled.

More than 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the seven-phase elections that will conclude on May 19 [Amit Dave/Reuters]
More than 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the seven-phase elections that will conclude on May 19 [Amit Dave/Reuters]

In this milieu, the 2019 elections had to depend on a strategy which would be different from 2014; national security, terrorism and nationalism became core issues overshadowing development.

Al Jazeera: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of turning authoritarian. Does his leadership pose a threat to India’s democracy?

Kunungo: The right wing has different trajectories. BJP and its predecessor BJS (Bharatiya Jana Sangh) have remained part and parcel of democratic process and even fought against the authoritarian regime of (former Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi. Former Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee, despite being from the right, was a democrat, not authoritarian.

Modi’s great mass appeal, oratory, charisma, strong leadership gave him a massive popular mandate in New Delhi and in majority of states. As he came to enjoy to control the party, the government and the state without facing any challenge, he naturally emerged as an authoritarian leader.

Authoritarianism is anti-thesis of democracy. Though the Indian constitution has enough checks and balances to stem authoritarianism, yet a powerful leader like Modi, with large mass support, could attempt to subvert the constitution and suppress democratic institutions threating India’s democracy.

Yet, India’s resilient and unique diversity and pluralism would always act as a strong bulwark against any authoritarian leadership to succeed.

Source: Al Jazeera