India After Rajiv Gandhi: A Chance for Renewal


The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has produced many pessimistic assessments of the future of Indian democracy and even of India's future as a single state.

The death of the last member of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty has been seen by commentators within and outside of India as the breaking of unifying force, of perhaps the only power capable of holding together such a vast, complex and conflicted land. The desperate act by the Congress Party leadership of trying to name Rajiv Gandhi's widow, an Italian woman who became an Indian citizen less than ten years ago, to be head of the party can be seen as a concrete manifestation of this view: that none but a Gandhi could hold the loyalty of the Indian masses.

But the dynasty is over, at least for now. Even if Sonia Gandhi had accepted had accepted the party leadership, it is doubtful ++ that she could long take the place of the family into which she married. Her children are too young to serve.

It is possible, however, that the departure from politics of the Nehru/kGandhi family may in fact strengthen the democratic institutions in a system which had become increasingly based on the personal ties of a narrow range of leaders from the North Indian plain.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Congress Party had become little more than a network of patronagae, centered on the Gandhi family and almost exclusively the preserve of poloiticians from the Hindi-speaking states of North India. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi both adopted a policy of continually shuffling ,, the Congress decks, ensuring that no one else could amass a following and thereby threaten their leadership. In their political system, only personal loyalty to them could bring rewards, and the Congress Party, once a mass political party based on the ideals first of independence and then of nation-building, became the Congress (I) Party. (I) for Indira, a web of personal contacts.

The enormous hole rent in that political web may now force all of India's leaders to widen their networks and their appeal. In particular, leaders from southern or western India may have the opportunity to come to power at the center, which would help ease the building alienation of these regions from a politics that was seen as being dominatd by the Hindi belt.

At the same time, removal of the extra-constitutional force of of the Nehru/Gandhi family could lead to a revitalization of constititional mechanisms. Unlike the constititions of China, the Soviet Union or other socialist countries, the Indian constitution was written as an actural plan for a democratic system of government, not the permanent rule of one party or family. The experience of 41 years of government under this constitution has itself served to entrench democratic institutions and to ingrain a tradition of democracy, which man now serve India well.

Even the multiple layers of social division that divide the population of India--religion, language, caste, class, wealth-- may prove to be conductive to the continuation of democracy. These divisions are based on cataegories that are not mutually exclusive, but rather cross-cutting. If the art of democratic politics lies in building majorities, the complexity of Indian society makes it unlikely that any majority can be a permanent one in a political sense.

This observation applies even to the more than 80 percent of the population who are Hindus. Wlhile the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to build a majoritarian Hindu bloc, Hindus themselves have long been divided by the disparities of the caste system. The possibility of shifting coalitions is the best guarantee of fluidity in the democratic process.

Unfortunately, a democracy of constantly shifting coalitions is at best untidy, inefficient and potentially unstable. It is also likely to be violent. Mass politics in India has become literally that, the gathering and manipulation of crowds that may number in the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Such crowds are hard to control and by their very presence can be intimidating to to opposition parties. Intimidation is particularly likely in India, where physical force has become part of the process of party politics.

Yet the potential for violence in the electoral process should not, of itself, raise doubts about Indian democracy. After all, Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to rough practical politics in a developing democracy, was deeply suspicious of the possibility that party politics would stagnate, and said that some blood would be needed to nourish a democratic system.

A danger to such a system is that violence may spiral out of control and become an end in itself, disrupting all political activity and bringing the authority and legitimacy of the political system into question. From this perspective, the supposed stability of a more homogenous polity may seem attractive, and solutions may be thought to lie in the creation of a permanent majority (such as Hindus) or in the division of India into smaller, more ethnically homogenous states. Either course, however, would be likely to produce political, economic and social disaster.

First, suppose that the BJP wins a solid majority with its message of India as a Hindu state, not a secular one. The likely prospects for such a "Hindustan" can be gauged by looking at India's neighbors. In Pakistan, on the one hand, the attempt to create an ideological state based on Islam has suffocated democracy, leaving a state closely dependent on the army. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the effort to ensure dominance of the majority Sinhalese community over the minority Tamils has caused the latter to rebel, bringing civil war and destroying the economy and democracy of a country once regarded as one of the most promising in Asia for the development of both.

India, with the second-largest Islamic population of any country in the world, cannot suppress its 110 million Muslim citizens without destroying itself in the process.

Neither does the division of India offer much better prospects. All of the regions of India are interdependent. The creation of a bunch of little countries in the sub-continent offers only Balkanization: loss of access to resources and markets, and increasing militarization with its accompanying costs and risks of war.

Again, the experience of India's neighbors is enlightening. Bangladesh is cursed by topography and weather, but also by its isolation from the wider economic system of India. As for Pakistan, the 1947 division that was supposed to solve the problem of inter-religious hostility on the subcontinent has instead institutionalized it. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since independence. They have also carried on one of the most intensive arms races in the world -- although they can ill afford such a diversion of resources to the military.

Some pessimists view India's problems as insurmountable. For those who are not willing to write off the subcontinent, continuation of India's democracy offers the best hope for the region. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a tragedy that makes manifest the chaos of political violence, may yet lead to a rejuvenation of the democratic process with the end of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty and the personalized politics it had engendered.

Robert Hayden, an associate professor of anthopology at the University of Pittsburgh, has done extensive field work in India and Yugoslavia.

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