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India's Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations

India's Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations

by Atul Kohli (Editor), Pranab K. Bardhan

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"The best and most insightful book on Indian politics in more than a decade. Draw[s] on the collective wisdom of a formidable array of the best available academic talent."--ChoiceNine contributors analyze state-society relations in India. A new epilogue covers the Rajiv Gandhi period, leading up to the important elections of December 1989.


"The best and most insightful book on Indian politics in more than a decade. Draw[s] on the collective wisdom of a formidable array of the best available academic talent."--ChoiceNine contributors analyze state-society relations in India. A new epilogue covers the Rajiv Gandhi period, leading up to the important elections of December 1989.

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"The best and most insightful book on Indian politics in more than a decade. Draw[s] on the collective wisdom of a formidable array of the best available academic talent."Choice

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.36(w) x 9.51(h) x 1.05(d)

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India's Democracy

An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations

By Atul Kohli


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07760-4


Political Leadership in India: Dimensions and Limits


Political leadership has been a perennial concern among evaluators of Indian democracy. It was addressed in 1956 at the first international conference of such evaluators, convened in Berkeley by the late Richard L. Park, although it was not then a conventional category of political analysis, and it remains a concern today. Why has the subject of leadership occupied observers of India and why does it recur today with new urgency? Some assert that India is well-nigh ungovernable, that no system can suffice, and that only superhuman leaders can, for a time, hold the reins. Yet this is certainly not the premise that guided the 1956 conference, and it is not supported by fact. India's constitution and her established rules of power, formal and informal, have been working longer, arguably, than those of any developing nation.

The leadership problems examined during the 1956 conference differ from those confronting analysts today. In 1956, toward the end of its first decade of independence, India had already lost some of its political giants — Gandhi, Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Ambedkar — but those who remained far exceeded the top leadership cadre of other new nations — Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Vinoba Bhave. They were men who differed in intellectual outlook and leadership style and whose followings were complementary rather than common. Yet, it was remarked by the 1956 conferees, these leaders shared a single vision of the system of rule that must guide the new nation. It was a parliamentary system, its leaders answerable to the people through elections. The entire existing network of power was manned by a "Westernized minority," whose aim was to make over society in its own image, using the state as its main instrument. Those manifestations of leadership operating outside the elective/parliamentary sphere (labeled "nonconventional" by the 1956 conference) could enter that sphere in the roles of "interest groups." The leaders who rejected Western models of society — Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, though dead, had left his Jan Sangh party in place — were increasingly drawn into the orbit of the elective/parliamentary system as opposition parties.

The great unknown, in the perspective of the 1956 conferees, was the response of the people themselves. Would the hundreds of millions, suddenly drawn into politics beyond the horizons of their villages, non-Western in culture, and innocent of English or of any written language, accept the patterns of leadership prepared for them by an elite very different from themselves? To this gigantic challenge the leaders of the 1950s were perceived as bringing two mighty resources: the civil services and the Indian National Congress. Both institutions were in the midst of vast and rapid extensions into the villages, and through them leaders were able to keep in touch with the Indian people, and even to work their will.

In 1986 India recognized in Rajiv Gandhi a true political leader, but he stood alone on the plateau of national eminence and public trust. The legitimacy of his entitlement to lead has been tested and vindicated by the now familiar elective/parliamentary process, but that process had little to do with his emergence. During his first year in office he has grasped firmly the nettles of crisis, but it is not yet apparent how he will cope with less clearly defined chronic problems. We need both historical and theoretical perspective to assess a leadership function and capability that is evidently in transition.

Robert C. Tucker provides a helpful scheme for categorizing the functions of leadership. As a scholar of Soviet politics, he is concerned with more than mere Westminister conventions. Yet, we must stretch his list to contain the Indian experience. This done, we can order the tasks of Indian leadership under three headings: 1. maintaining political and administrative institutions; 2. diagnosing problems and formulating policy responses; and 3. integrating the nation as a political community. In a democracy, as opposed to a totalitarian or authoritarian system, access to leadership is as well structured and open to scrutiny as are the tasks to be performed, and the ways in which leadership is gained throw light on how leaders perform their functions. The path taken to leadership in some part determines the power held by the leader, the legitimacy of his leadership, and, to some extent, support for his policies. It provides, also, a test of whether established routes to the top tend to select and prepare men and women who can carry the leadership load. Two added categories with which to assess the Indian experience are, thus, 4. winning mandates; and 5. pathways to power. Using these five categories, our task is to scan thirty-six years of Indian political experience to determine the characteristics of leadership in India's democracy.

Maintaining Political and Administrative Institutions

The Indian republic was born with governing institutions fully grown, institutions remarkable for their strength and, even more, for their deep roots in Indian society. The Indian National Congress and its rival parties comprise the most remarkable of these. As to administrative institutions, Paul Appleby, a senior American practitioner and teacher of administration, rated them in 1953 as among the world's best. Although a foreign observer might be judged a bit generous, the process of constitution making, which proceeded right through the trauma of partition, provided unassailable evidence that the political leaders maintained full confidence in the very apparatus that had recently been locking them in jail. They retained intact the tools by which the great subcontinent could initially be governed.

Changes in Indian society and in the tasks imposed on the administrative institutions, however, soon began to undermine the basis of that confidence. The state, guided by Nehru's socialist vision, took on itself the responsibility for transforming the economy. Even more ambitious, it sought to deliver new services — education, public health, sophisticated agricultural technology, cooperative marketing — to half a million villages. The very structure of power in these isolated communities was to be remade by reforms of land tenure and credit. These heavy new burdens overstressed the old imperialist bureaucracy. Nehru intervened episodically in program implementation, but his principal structural change was to counterpose to the lower reaches of the bureaucracy several tiers of elected councils, panchayat raj. The effect was both democratizing and divisive, and stresses on field administration increased. According to Nehru's sympathetic biographer, "The failure to dismantle the civil services and to replace them with a new machinery of administration suited to the objectives of free India set up unnecessary hurdles."

Police Reforms: Aborted

We can observe a further cycle of the breakdown by examining the key state institution of the police, by noting how the needs of leaders have added to the burden of an admittedly obsolete machinery, and by understanding what the obstacles to reform have been. The Indian government has, with characteristic candor, detailed the shortcomings of the police system in its report of the National Police Commission.

The commission was convened just after Indira Gandhi's Emergency was lifted. Police abuses of power were among the deep grievances that had animated voters to reject her continued control. The commission found, however, that several sources of stress on the encrusted police apparatus would not disappear with the end of Emergency rule. The opening of higher education, for example, in the context of capital-intensive industrialization providing few jobs, had created career dead ends for many young people. In only seven years, 1972 to 1979, the number of educated unemployed doubled, from 3.2 million to 6.9 million. The number of "public order" incidents recorded by the police as arising from student unrest grew apace during a corresponding period, from 3,861 in 1970 to 7,520 seven years later.

Likewise, the nation's principal efforts toward righting injustices and opening opportunity in the countryside aroused violent responses. Untouchables slowly awakened to their new legal rights: annual prosecutions under the Untouchability (Offenses) Act rose from an average of fewer than 500 per year in the 1950s, when the law was passed, to over 3,000 per year in the 1970s. Backlash took bloody forms. Atrocities against Untouchables rose from 5,968 in 1976 to 14,571 in 1978. In these clashes the police characteristically did the will of powerful landholders in the villages, not of the national leaders who had championed the new charters of rights. The commission was forthright on this point: "The poor who seek police help are rebuffed by the influence of village power on the police." So it was, too, with the long series of programs to redistribute power in land.

The stresses were largely qualitative, government responses were wholly quantitative. State police forces were expanded. Central forces swelled even more; by the mid-1970s these latter numbered 800,000 men, three-quarters the size of the Indian army. Chances of promotion for constables, nine-tenths of the state forces, were almost nil. Sixty-two percent were still at the bottom rank when they retired, 28 percent advanced to head constable, only 10 percent moved up even to assistant sub-inspector. Alienated from their officers, aggrieved over low pay and status, the constabulary, defying the prohibition of law and regulations, began to form unions. Total collapse of control from the top was signaled in 1973 by the notorious episode in Uttar Pradesh, when the Indian army had to be called in to disarm and relieve the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), which had joined the student demonstrators it had been sent to quell. Discontent over pay was part of the problem, so was perceived weakness on the part of politicians in charge. Stephen Cohen has pointed out that this was only the second instance since 1857 of military or police rebellion in India.

Any assessment of Indian democracy must take into account the interaction of the steady decomposition of the chain of command in the agencies of government with the progressive intervention of elected politicians in bureaucratic affairs. Even as compared with representatives in other mass democracies, Indian legislators have been occupied more with servicing their constituents than with struggling over policy decisions. As one scholar of Indian administration reported, "Most party leaders strove for positions as ministers not so they could provide executive leadership for agencies, but so that they would be in strong positions to penetrate those agencies' lower ranks on behalf of their constituencies." Such politicians found field administrators and constabulary prepared to make deals with incumbent politicians to protect and advance their careers. As parties or factions within parties altered in office, such alignments produced divided field forces.

Politicians had a powerful weapon with which to enforce their will upon officers of all ranks: summary transfers of station. Over four years in the mid-1970s, the National Police Commission found that transfers for other than normal administrative reasons created average tenures of twenty months for inspectors general (top state police officers), nineteen months for district superintendents, and fourteen months for sub-inspectors. Over half of all constables had been transferred within a year in Uttar Pradesh, 43 percent, in Delhi. Politicians needed to control the police to protect bootleggers, black marketeers, local toughs, and other lawless elements in their vote-delivery apparatuses, to blunt the effect of redistributive laws upon their powerful local supporters, and to suppress agitations by opposition parties or movements. On occasion, the substitution of party control of the police for the rule of law became a matter of high policy. In March 1967, the Communist party (Marxist) government of West Bengal ordered that the police must first get orders from the labor ministers of their government before arresting for trespass employees who were gheraoing, or sitting in, in the offices of factory managers. This was a rare exception to the tendency of political intervention to serve particularistic motives. The nationwide situation was summarized by David Bayley in a letter to the commission: "Police officers throughout India have grown accustomed to calculating the likely political effect of any enforcement action they contemplate. ... Altogether, then, the rule of law in modern India, the frame upon which justice hangs, has been undermined by the rule of politics." Quite logically, such interventions have subverted the chain of command. "Subordinate officers see ... that their superior officers count for very little ...," observed the police commission.

West Bengal provides a recent example. The state deputy commissioner of police was killed when a party of constables he commanded were afraid to follow him into a hostile neighborhood to arrest a fugitive. His accused killer was then beaten to death by the constables in the nearest police station. The government hesitated to bring action against either group of offending constables, India Today reported, "because of fear of the Non-Gazetted Police Karmachari Samiti (Worker's Association), 42,000 strong throughout the state."

Why Political Leaders Have Not Acted

The diagnosis and prescription for police reform run remarkably parallel to the findings of an earlier commission on the civil services in general. The Administrative Reforms Commission found need for "radical change." Among its many recommendations, however, only the most easily implemented were put into effect. Deeper restructuring to open competition for topmost policy-recommending posts, to end invidious differences among career lines of generalists and more specialized professionals, and to fix responsibility for performance and appropriately to reward or penalize it was never accomplished. Ten years after the Administrative Reforms Commission report, the man who had directed the Indian Institute of Public Administration still found a "crisis" in India's administrative institutions. What had happened, of course, was that new stresses on institutions had overtaken halting changes in them.

Why have top political leaders not instituted reforms so insistently and authoritatively pressed? Are these matters beneath their levels of concern? Perhaps, but a closer look suggests that decomposition of the institutions of government threatens leadership from four directions.

1. Corruption of office-holding has become an industry in many sectors of government. The turning point is reached when middle-level executives pay large sums for the purchase of office. They then count on the systematic taking of bribes by those at the bottom and on an orderly division of the spoils. The National Police Commission found just such an industry of corruption in the police; Robert Wade has found it in delivery of water from irrigation canals; and these are certainly not the most vulnerable sectors. Government forces so tainted will obviously not effectuate any program that will redistribute benefits from those who pay, and they cannot be expected to enforce equal justice. "When you want to use an arm of the state," Arun Shourie writes, "the arm is limp."

2. Police forces, armed with coercive powers and operating as a law unto themselves, inflict upon weaker members of society abuses so heinous that they represent political liabilities to some leaders, even though others appear callous to the ugliest of official crimes. Jagannath Mishra, chief minister of Bihar, strove mightily to cover up the involvement of most of his police establishment in the blinding of thirty-one, perhaps thirty-four, supposed bandits who had fallen into the hands of the police. The victims' eyes were punctured with the coarse needles used to sew up gunny bags, then filled with acid. Indira Gandhi, who discovered the atrocity through photographs in the Indian Express, was, she said later, physically sick. She could not believe that such things could happen in India. She telephoned Mishra. "She was so upset," the chief minister told Arun Shourie of the Express, "she talked to me for fifteen minutes." But it was only a series of coincidences, involving whistle-blowing by a handful of principled jail and police officers, and dogged perseverence by the Express, that uncovered the official guilt. Lest anyone conclude that such abuses are a monopoly of one backward state, consider the record in Tamil Nadu. India Today reports the recent record of brutality there toward suspects not yet produced for trial. "Once every ten days for five years, on the average, an under-trial has died in agony. ..."


Excerpted from India's Democracy by Atul Kohli. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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