Politics has been atomised

<strong>The Idea of India</strong>

Sunil Khilnani <em>Penguin Books, 304pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 014

More attention is being paid to India now than, arguably, at any other time in her post-Independence history. India matters, and so does its democratic experience. In an era of global apathy and disengagement in the "developed democracies", what India is doing right, despite its flaws, merits our attention. Political participation is at the heart of modern India's idea of itself. Mass participation was the hallmark of the independence struggle, and its legacy can be seen in the huge crowds that turn out for political parties. Levels of political literacy and organisation are remarkable in this complicated federal, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country. Elections in the world's largest democracy are a logistical feat: there might even be some lessons for us in the "old democracies".

But the nature of democratic expression in India is changing. Politics has become atomised, and instead of a grand Nehruvian sweep - a rallying call to national arms for an edifying national purpose - political parties are mobilising around region, religion, caste and language. Khilnani predicts this change. Congress, the party of Nehru which dominated India's post-independence period, was a mass movement that learned to become a political party. Nehru's legacy to the Congress party was a belief in institutions, a commitment to politicians being accountable to their electorates on a regular basis, and the overriding notion that mixing religion and politics would be disastrous.

That party has changed. The dynastic proclivities of his successors (and anti-democratic tendencies of his daughter) betrayed this legacy and saw many turn away from Congress, which they saw as the personal fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Many in that family shared this view of the Congress Party, too. To some extent this perception persists.

The era of central government is over. Coalitions dominate Indian politics. Central parties offering an overarching national vision seem to be a busted flush. Smaller parties are in the ascendant and can hold sway over the process of government. These parties are increasingly caste-based, religion-based, region and language-based.

What are the implications for Indian democracy and India's idea of itself? What are the consequences of the locus of Indian democracy shifting to small areas? Will the politics of small things define India's future and her ability to fulfil her role as a global player? These are big questions, and the Idea of India offers an ideal place to search for answers.

Ashish Bhatt is deputy director of the Ditchley Foundation

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