Problems of Democracy in India


(Andhra University, Waltair)


It might appear premature and out of place to discuss at present the problems of democracy in India. For as yet we have only its germ, and our experience of it is brief. Until we achieve our national freedom we cannot really know its problems at first hand and we have only the Government of India Act of 1935 which is very far removed from the goal. Our political generalizations about democracy must therefore suffer a two-fold limitation: firstly, in that it is not a real democratic experience that we shall be summarising, and secondly, in that we are dependent on an experience that is not good enough to enable the formation of political judgments valid over long periods. The conclusions that we draw will inevitably be limited in their usefulness. It does not require proof that we can neither use nor abuse a power that we do not possess and thus render ourselves worthy or unworthy of the responsibilities of a democratic polity.

None the less, there is a purpose that will be served by discussion even if we cannot bring to it an experience of democracy in its full scope and over a long period of time. We are wedded to democracy as an ideal to be realised along with our freedom. Democracy, unlike other forms of government, is nurtured on reflection and criticism and is dependent on a sound public opinion for its efficient functioning. An atmosphere of reasoned criticism is one of the major conditions of its success. Even with the limited means available to us it is our duty to contribute to the establishment of the spiritual and material conditions under which alone democracy can effectively function. By discussion we should be contributing in some measure to this end. Besides, we might be able to gain a knowledge of the ways of overcoming the peculiar evils to which democracy subject and thus be able to avoid its dangers and pitfalls.

In discussing the problems of democracy we cannot escape the necessity of drawing upon the experience of countries other than our own, for the reasons that the experience they furnish us is larger and that democracy in this country should be, as Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar rightly points out, a modern ideal. Democracy for us is not the revival of an ancient institution; it is a new polity of which both the idea and the politics have to be borrowed from the West.

But the limitations of this procedure must be carefully borne in mind. The study of the experience of other countries will certainly help us to understand our problems and might even suggest to us the means of overcoming our difficulties, but it can never be a complete guide to the adequate handling of all our problems. As Montesquieu pointed out long ago, governmental problems are peculiar to each country and must be faced by each in its own way. Political institutions must be suited to the genius and circumstances of each people, and history and experience alone can determine the fitness of a people for a particular type of institution. Where political institutions are copied by one country from another, they cannot exactly re-produce the originals in all their details and must be altered in particular directions to suit the new country. It is a common place, well supported by experience, that theoretically Perfect systems may fail in actual practice and political systems which have worked admirably in a special environment may not function at all or, what is still worse, may function perversely in a different environment. These considerations must be before the student who would study the problems of democracy in this country.

A few general remarks on Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s Address as a whole may be in place here before a detailed examination is undertaken. No student of this provocative Address canfail to notice that more is attempted in it than can be conveniently dealt with in the brief compass of an Address, and that as a consequence it raises more issues than answers them with any adequacy. Nor can he escape a sense of disappointment at its obviously abstract and theoretical quality. Very often Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar gives us his conclusions leaving us to surmise the premises and the course of the argument of which they are the product. The result is, his conclusions appear to stand on no substantial basis.

Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s reading of history, both past and present, is defective in places. He shows only a partial appreciation, if not a total misunderstanding, of the processes of representative government. The assumptions that mere mechanism could establish a perfect democracy and that any institution can be transplanted with ease from any country to any other country underlie his argument, in spite of his statements to the contrary.

There are serious omissions among the problems of democracy chosen for discussion, as for instance the minorities problem and its bearing on democracy, the place of the bureaucracy in India, and the problem of local self-government. Here are perhaps the most difficult and fundamental issues for our democracy, and yet they are not dealt with even in passing.

Over the entire field of Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s observations there is an exaggeration in the criticism and an impracticability in the suggestions. So disproportionately severe is his criticism at some places that one wonders if there is another species of democracy which Mr. Iyengar has in mind rather than the one with which we are familiar in this or any other country.

These remarks may appear irreverent. But the detailed examination that follows of the contributions, errors and omissions in Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s analysis of the problems of democracy will be found to bear them out fully.



Among the general observations that Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar makes is his call to us to recognise that democracy in India today must be "a wholly modern ideal," and that in its fundamentals as well as in its details it must be ‘completely secular and modern.’ (8)* Though we may discover forms of democratic policy in ancient and mediaeval India as the growing literature on the subject of Hindu Polity attests, 2 none of these forms have survived and not even the least connection could be established between them and the modern experiment. The ancient Hindu concept of the State was a concept of Society and not of the State as we understand it, and the conception of a popular Government actively changing our social life was "probably alien" to early Hindu notions. The concept of Dharma first limited and then prevented the development of democracy, and finally whatever there was of democracy or Dharma vanished with the advent of the Muslims into India. The vastness of the country, the differences of religion, foreign invasions and domestic strife were among the other causes which prevented the growth of democracy in this country. (3-7)

We may question the role ascribed in this account to the concept of Dharma. Prima facie there seems to be no reason why a conception that sought to limit the action of Government in the name of a higher morality should have resulted in the suppression of democracy in the interest of the ‘divine right’ monarch. It may be here pointed out that an analogous conception, that of the Law of Nature or of God, worked exactly in the opposite direction and was the basis of the revolutionary philosophies of Europe in the 18th century which led to the great experiments of democracy in the West. But this is a point of interest only to the student of political ideas and we may pass on to matters of more general interest.

It cannot be doubted that our democracy must be a wholly modern ideal, and that it should be completely mundane and rational. This is dictated by our conditions. It is on the plane of a common democratic citizenship that we can hope to acheive the unity and welfare of this country. To introduce religion into politics would be to split that unity and to render the chance of our free political existence remote.


The failure of the people of India to develop a stable and nation-wide government of any sort, not to speak of democracy, has been, in the main, due not to lack of political genius, but to the inexorable facts of long distances, differences of religion, race and language, and foreign invasions and internecine troubles which have filled our history. An enduring democratic State can be reared only on the basis of a cultural homogeneity among the people for whom the polity is intended. A sense of unity, transcending the barriers of race, religion, language and the difficulties of inter-communication due to distance and a vast population, is an indispensable pre-requisite of democracy. Such unity is found in nationalism. It is essentially psychological, and is best described as a mystic sense of oneness that the people of a country feel. A people that experiences the feeling that it is a nation constitutes one. 3

An identity of race or even a mistaken belief in such identity is by no means an essential constituent of this spirit, though it may help in its formation. Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar seems to fall into the error of believing that the sense of racial identity is essential for a nationalism that does not desire to be an anaemic force, incapable of defending itself.4 There is indeed no need to assume a fictitious identity of race and fall foul of scientific theories as Mr. Iyengar does.5 We cannot wish away biological differences. A proper sense of nationalism would require that we should subordinate the claims of race to those of the nation and ultimately of humanity. Mr. Iyengar’s criticism of Huxley, Haddon and other writers is entirely misconceived, and shows little appreciation of the services they have rendered to unmask a huge fraud.6 The dithyrambic references to our common race displays an utter confusion of thought.

Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s meaning appears to be race not in the strictly biological sense; it is race in a mystical sense. One cannot argue against mystic belief. One must take it or leave it. The most charitable view seems to be that his purpose is to prove that whatever the differences of race in a scientific sense, in a cultural sense there are no differences amongst us, Whatever may be the racial differences amongst us, taken as a whole, we differ more from other peoples than we do among ourselves. In the strictly scientific sense we may not be a race but an ethnic group. But that is no barrier to our feeling as one people. Whatever may be the scientific validity of such a view, it may be pointed out that it is exactly this kind of belief that constitutes the modern idea of nationalism.

There are two points which need to be emphasised here. An overwhelming sense of unity among the people is necessary in the first place for a successful democracy. In the second place, the people must have faith in itself. Not only do we need a spirit of solidarity; we also need, perhaps in a much greater measure, a spirit of self-confidence to succeed in the art of democracy. The words of Pericles that the secret of freedom is courage are no less true today than when they were spoken.


Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar writes: "While it is perfectly true that good government is not self-government, it is equally true that self-government is not good government." (16). Literally, this proposition would make no sense. What seems to be meant is simply that democratic as well as other forms of government can be both good and bad, and that there is no inseparable connection between democracy and good government. This doctrine has been examined at length by John Stuart Mill and there is no further need to discuss it here.7 It is only necessary to recall his conclusions. Even were we to admit that government is not merely a matter of form, since the representative system has in it the potentialities of individual development by merely coming into existence, and as it cannot exist without the citizen’s active interest in public affairs, it still remains the ‘ideally best form of polity.’ Any other view would be pernicious.

The question that has to be answered is: What constitutes good government? Judged by mere form, representative government is the best. We must also judge by results. Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar offers us no criteria by which to pronounce a government good or bad. Individual answers to the question will differ according to the social philosophy of the person making the judgment. Social philosophies are in their turn largely determined by the social class of individuals, and they differ widely. I consider a government good if its actions please and profit me. A socialist would consider every government an unmitigated evil if it is not seeking to bring about the social millennium, and a conservative would consider it the best. What matters is the result for the majority of average men and women. The total achievement of a government must appeal to them as the realization of their interests. That is possible only under democracy. A good government, then, would not be a government that satisfies this or that individual’s conception of good government, but one which fulfils the large purposes of democracy and realises the majority’s conception of good government. Democratic government has this as its supreme object and its machinery should therefore be designed to secure it.


This brings us to the issue of the social and economic back-ground in which democracy can function. The problem does not elicit the attention it deserves in Mr. Iyengar’s survey. The industrial problem is mentioned; the agrarian and social problems are not mentioned even in passing. Yet the disharmonies that exist amongst us due to the system of castes, the inequalities of our economic system and the feudalistic regime in agriculture, are among the most serious factors that are likely to pervert and nullify democratic institutions. Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar admits that economic justice is indispensable. This does not, in his opinion, involve economic equality. It has to be achieved without infringing upon the institution of private property. Mr. Iyengar advocates the socialisation of all large-scale industries, the abolition of joint stock companies which have distorted, in his opinion, the economic relations of society, and the adoption of State Planning in the field of industrial development. Current views on these subjects are embodied in the suggestions. How democracy is to be fitted into the system of State Planning and other important questions associated with socialisation are left out. It is to be emphasized that, however fool-proof may be the institutional apparatus that we may adopt, democracy cannot be safe unless these important problems are squarely faced and solved.


It has been said that education is the heart of the modern State.8 Some of the best things that Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar has to say are said of it. The intelligent participation in public affairs that is required of the citizen of a democracy is only possible if he is educated. If for no other reason except that of being articulate about his wants, the citizen in a modern State needs education up to a high standard. The aim of education must be to strengthen and preserve democracy. It must be designed for the common man and Woman. It should seek to inculcate a spirit of patriotism and discipline and teach tolerance and critical judgment and should be based on respect for the dignity of human personality. It should help to make the citizen creative and should not be prostituted to the purposes of party or sect. (74-76)

"On the whole." writes Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar, "if the Indian democracy is not to fail, a very large increase in the organisation of mass education must be insisted upon. The only just solution appears to be to make education of a standard above the primary and a little below the secondary-school-leaving-certificate, universal and compulsory." (27). This must become a direct obligation of the State. Under present conditions, higher education is more important than even primary education. It should be completely secular and rational to suit a democracy that is secular and rational.

A word of dissent must be said about Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar’s plea that scientific and technical subjects must have precedence over merely cultural subjects which are, in his opinion, only a luxury and are "the hall-mark of a class education." Mr. Iyengar considers the arts as useless for the common man. We do not know whether Mr. Iyengar would classify subjects like Law and Politics, Education and Economics as arts or sciences. But if these studies were to be regarded as cultural subjects having merely a luxury value and omitted from the school and college curricula, one should despair for the future of democracy.

(To be Continued)

1 A review of Mr. S. Srinivasa Iyengar’s Address of the above title.

* Figures within brackets throughout this article indicate the pages from which the quotations have been taken from the Address.

2 K. P. Jayaswal: Hindu Polity: D. R. Bhandarkar: Carmichael Lectures (1919); B. C. Law: Republics in Ancient India; U. Ghosal: Hindu Pol. Theories; S. K. Aiyengar: South Indian History; K. A. Nilakanta Sastri: Chola Administration; etc.

3 The literature on Nationalism is too vast to be cited here. The following titles would be representative; Hayes: Essays in Modern Nationalism; Hollan Rose: Nationality; Muir; Nationalism and Internationalism; Joseph: Nationality and its Problems; Zimmern: Nationality and Government; Laski: Grammar of Politics, Ch. on the subject; Hans Kohn: Nationalism in the Soviet Union; Nationalism in the Near East, etc. See also Arthur Keith: Nationality and Race.

4 A purely intellectual concept of nationality formed in the political laboratory can at best lead to an anaemic nationalism which will never be able to defend itself." (80)

5 We Indians are all a mixed people: and I have the unshakeable conviction that we all belong to one race"! (80). Again: "The concept of nationality and race is a psychological one, rooted in the depths of our being. It is already there in our blood though we have been rather slow to rediscover it. If we would but plumb the depths of our hearts we shall surely find that we are all one race. The sense of racial identity is among the most precious things to be cherished and will give us unalloyed happiness. And to my mind it is the one mystic force that will hold us together through all our vicissitudes," (80-81). Or again: "A people can do without democracy, but they cannot do without faith in the racial nexus, however much biological race may be exorcised by the convinced pacifist or scientist." (15)

6 (80-81) The books criticised are: Julian Huxley: We. Europeans; and Haddon: The Races of Man.

7 Mill: Representative Government. Chs. 2 and 3.

8 Laski: Grammar of Politics.