Democracy In India: Enduring yet Incomplete

India remains a paradox to those studying politics, for despite overwhelming odds it has remained a democracy since its independence from Britain in 1947. India’s democracy defies the Prezeworski and Lipset ideals that the financial state of a country is an indicator of how likely it is that a democracy will endure (Lipset, 1959) (Prezeworski et. al., 1996). India has overwhelming poverty in parts of the country, a deeply hierarchical society, as well as a large illiterate rural population, all of which should threaten the endurance of democracy. Although imperfect, India has maintained a stable democracy for nearly 70 years (with the exception of a two year “Emergency” under Indira Gandhi) (Kesselman et. al., 2007). India’s democracy has endured for two reasons. The first reason being the way the British colonized and ruled India, and the second reason being rooted in their nationalist movement.

India inherited and retained a well-oiled civil service from the British. The British sought to create coherence through the creation of central government (Kesselman et. al., 2007). This means that the British helped to create a relatively effective state structure and the newly liberated India did not have to go through a trial-and-error period to establish institutions once it gained independence from the British. The British also kept the Indians, although mostly the elite, involved in politics, so when the British left, there was civil servants that remained to ensure a more smooth transition.

The Indian nationalist movement laid the groundwork for democracy in India in that protests took place peacefully and by non-violent means (Kesselman et. al., 2007). Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party (INC) were well-educated civil servants that led the nationalist movement. This movement mobilized the upper and middle classes against the British and helped to create a national identity.

Although India can be considered an enduring democracy, it has not performed well between elections. There are limited services to the poor, who still make up a large percent of the population. Although India has politically empowered its rural and urban poor through universal suffrage, illiteracy still remains in these populations, making it less likely that they will vote and therefore much less likely that they will get the education and health care services they need. Several scholars have criticized India (and have questioned whether it is, in fact, a democracy) by citing the outrageous corruption and human right’s issues that do not bode well in a democracy. An article in the LA Times states that India, while a democracy, is not complete due to the atrocities of the government onto the civil population (Gill, 2014). According to the author, India still lacks a government that has the credibility to build a lasting legacy of democratic pluralism for it’s billion citizens, 300+ languages, and multitude of religions (Gill, 2014). In a country with the possibility of one billion ballots, author Vinay Sahasrabuddhe states that India’s elections are “more impressive in form than substance.” (Ghosh 2014). He cites the deeply entrenched and unmovable leadership for these problems (Ghosh 2014). Given the corruption in the government, the lack of allocation of good and services to the poor, and disputes over religion, the question becomes not whether India is a democracy, but rather whose voices are being heard.


Gill, R (2014). “India’s Incomplete Democracy”. LA Times. Retrieved From

Ghosh, P (2014) “Is India Really a Democracy?” International Business Times. Retrieved From


Kesselman, Mark, Joel Krieger, and William A. Joseph. Introduction to Comparative Politics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004.

Lipset, Sermour Martin . 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review, 53(1):69-86. *

Cheibub, Jose Antonio, Adam Przewoprski, Fernando Papaterra Limongi Neto, Micheal Alvarez. 1996. “What Makes Democracies Endure” Journal of Democracy 7(1): 39-55.


8 thoughts on “Democracy In India: Enduring yet Incomplete

  1. When exploring such a complex issue as democracy’s endurance in India, it may be beneficial to start at the most primitive of questions. What is democracy? Depending on one’s definition of Democracy, the original question can become non-sequitur. Contrary to what you suggest in the ultimate sentence, the question becomes whether India is a democracy. Seemingly radical definitions, such as that of Benjamin Barber, can easily dismiss India as “non-democratic”. However, a simpler, less substantive approach can still question India’s “democracy”. Take for example Freedom House’s 2015 report on international freedom. India scored barely made the cutoff for “free”, scoring a 2.5. For the “civil liberties” India even garnered a 3. While “freedom” and “democracy” may not be synonymous, there are plenty of conceptual and operational overlaps (as illustrated in Freedom House’s Methodology). Furthermore, while “fair and free elections” may be held, the chosen politicians often don’t embody the values commonly associated with “democracy”. Rampant corruption, from the upper echelons of government to smallest local entities, derails democracy. What use is a vote if the politician can be beliefs and actions can be bought? As illustrated in the assigned New York Times video, often politicians themselves bribe voters with alcohol and Pepsi. Is that democracy?
    My point is not that India is “non-democratic”. It’s merely to show that the question of whether or not India is a democracy exists. Perhaps if we tackle this dilemma first, and further qualify what India is and isn’t, then the discussion may shift. Certain questions may change, disappear, or come about. The question of the existence of “true democracy” in India is not only valid, but valuable, even essential.

  2. Given the corruption and severe economic inequality in India today, one wonders if India will continue to have a democracy in the coming years. This raises another question: does democracy have a functional limit of people? Is China a good model for how to govern over a billion people? I am confident that India will slowly make meaningful progress to increase it’s “freedom” and “democracy” rating, as joshuapanter brought up in his comment above.

    Thanks for your piece – I enjoyed it!

  3. Your article raises some really interesting points and questions to consider! The relationship between the British and India also reminded me of the period of time when British had ruled Hong Kong. Even after Hong Kong had gained independence, the permanent effects that the British left on many aspects of Hong Kong (including government or lifestyle) had remained. This is similar to how India continues to endure the democracy that was implanted from British rule, as you mentioned. Also, as I was reading the article, I wondered if the issues that india is facing (such as lack of services and resources for the poor) would be different had the British continued to colonize and rule India. Would India’s democracy be more legitimized and less disputed then? Would there be a more credible government? But India is still a developing country, so major changes will definitely still happen in the future! I enjoyed your article!

  4. I enjoyed your interpretation of India’s success as a carry over from the British rule, but I would also wonder whether the way in which India gained independence is a significant factor. Given the lack of democratic success in many other British colonies, the relatively peaceful pseudo-nationalist movement in India could have done more than mobilize certain classes, it could have been the defining factor in the people not overthrowing the entire British system upon gaining independence. Overall though, I think your piece handles the topic very well and I even learned a few things.

  5. I thought your interpretation on Britain’s colonization and rule of India to be interesting. Yes, I agree that the British helped India smoothly transition to independence; they were the ones to give India their independence, but I wonder if Indians credit the British for their enduring democracy as much as you did. I would imagine that Indians feel some animosity towards their former rulers. (From a U.S. history view, colonists here were not exactly fans of their British rulers by the end; the Revolutionary War) Of course, you could also question what state India would be in today without Britain’s former rule. Either way I would be interested in knowing how Indians feel towards the British.

    Overall, I enjoyed your article, and liked how you highlighted the problems with India’s democracy.

  6. You highlight and interpret the main theme of the article, “India’s Inequality” by Zangha; Can an enduring democracy such as that of India’s keep up with the economic growth? The growth in population reflects directly on the economic growth of a country. The impact of growth on poverty in India is much higher than in other countries which therefore works against the manifestation of democracy in the country. While the prevalence of poverty has gradually declined in India there has been a steady growth in the population. The economy must grow to generate opportunities and resources for the growing masses and underprivileged groups, only then will there be a high growth with a parallel poverty reduction. Such a transition will enforce and support the ongoing democracy of India.
    So yes…I agree with your stance: Democracy in India is enduring yet incomplete.

  7. I think India is facing an interesting possible turning point today. It faces many problems that have to do with the large economic diversity in the country. This article: sums up some of the challenges very nicely. I wonder if India will be able to deal with them in a democratic fashion in the future, given that with its large population is also faces some organizational and bureaucratic problems.

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