India: The World’s Biggest Democracy No More?

Seth, Sanjay. 2022. India: The World’s Biggest Democracy No More? Asian Studies, 68(4), pp. 21-31. ISSN 0044-9237 [Article]

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This article seeks to assess the descriptive adequacy of that hackneyed phrase—‘the world’s biggest democracy’—often used to describe India. The phrase is used not only to describe but also to praise, for the term democracy is universally valorised. It is also however deeply contested, and people often mean very different things by it. That is one reason why it often comes with an adjectival qualifier—liberal democracy, people’s democracy, socialist democracy, direct democracy, and so on. The adjectives specify additional content to what would otherwise be a mostly empty or formal term, one signifying that elections are held but without specifying who can participate, the terms under which they can do so, the powers held by the governments “the people” elect, and so on. After briefly surveying the making of India’s constitution after Independence, the article draws a distinction between a formal or political democracy, and a substantive democracy, one in which political and legal equality becomes the basis for effecting greater social equality. I argue that while for much of its history independent India has been a political democracy, it has failed in according its citizens a roughly equal measure of social and economic well­being, and dignity. But even with this very important caveat, there has been much to admire in what was once widely regarded as a promising experiment—of how a large, diverse and impoverished nation, only just emerged from colonial rule, developed institutions and practices that allowed the people to govern themselves, under conditions of political (though never economic) equality and freedom. The article then asks whether today’s India, governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, can even be considered a political or formal democracy? It concludes that there are many signs that it cannot, especially because the status of Indian Muslims as part of “the people” or demos has been called into question. The article concludes that India is in danger of becoming the world’s largest failed democracy.

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Politics > Centre for Postcolonial Studies


31 October 2022Published

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Date Deposited:

27 Jan 2023 09:41

Last Modified:

27 Jan 2023 09:41

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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