India’s “flawed” democracy and the colonial legacy

Originally posted in OpIndia

The news that self-appointed guardians of world democracy, the US based Freedom House and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute had downgraded India’s democracy to “partially free” and “flawed” has captured the headlines in Indian media.

In both the rankings, some interesting facts stand out. Out of the top 10 “most” democratic countries, 90% are either European or have a majority white Caucasian population. Not a single Asian or African country figure in any top 10 list. Even in the top 20 list, most of the names are either European or have a white majority population. Just one Asian country figures in the ranks between 10 to 20. In short, these organizations are hinting loudly that almost all of Asia and Africa are still immature democracies, which have not reached the aspirational heights of European democracies. An astonishing 6.2 billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America are denigrated as incapable of governing themselves. An extraordinary colonial hangover and overt racism pervades these rankings. If denigrating 82% of the world’s population for not being European enough is not racist, what is?

This approach also fits neatly with attitudes which reflect the prejudices from a bygone colonial era. The hope of the west was that the former colonies will one day aspire to grow up in the image of their colonial masters. Even while this impossible dream is in progress, the imperial powers would not miss a chance to interfere and denigrate their former colonies.  South African academic, Steven Friedman argues that there are deep rooted prejudices when it comes to examining other democracies. There is an implicit assumption that the tens if not hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa do not have what it takes to select leaders who are truly democratic, and that outsiders sitting in the western ivory towers know better.

Europe has been actively involved in actively sabotaging democracy in places like Africa with France alone having staged 122 military interventions in Africa after 1960, at an average of one a year. Rwanda has recently blamed France for “enabling” the entire Rwandan genocide. Many European countries still retain their political, economic, and cultural hegemony over the colonies. To give one example, Margaret Thatcher’s son was arrested in 2004 for fomenting a coup in Equatorial Guinea. Officers involved in the bid noted that Margaret Thatcher herself approved this coup.[1]

Issues in European democracies:

The west has turned a blind eye when it comes to examining the health of its own democracies. Britain has an unelected House of Lords which helps in framing laws for the country. It has an unelected monarch answerable to none, which approves bills before it become law. The monarchy along with the House of Lords comprise two of the three pillars of British democracy.

Denmark, Norway, Finland and the UK do not even profess to be secular and have adopted Protestant Christianity as their national religion. But they figure right at the top of the rankings chart. The Scandinavian countries with populations of the order of 5 million each have the gall to tell countries 260 times bigger than them, that their version of democracy is far superior to the Asian version. Even a child realizes that it is easier to manage 10 people compared to 2600 people, every problem is magnified many a time. Adding to this storm is a toxic legacy of colonial hangovers, partition, incompetent leaders and economic destitution.

The antagonistic colonial masters:

India is at an interesting time in its growth trajectory. A country which Churchill once described as a “sweltering, syphilitic climate” filled with “gross, dirty and corrupt” babus and “rascals, rogues, and freebooters” posing as leaders, was never expected to have the ability to decide its own future. [2]

Europeans historically had an antagonistic attitude to India and a sneering contempt for anything Indian. To be fair, this derision was directed towards Asians, Africans and Native Americans. Indigenous tribes were “savages” waiting to be civilized. In 1890, just 6000 British ruled a country of 250 million people, justifying their plunder by blaming Indian “cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of organized resistance.”[3] In 1937, an active proponent of eugenics, the infamous Churchill wrote about Native Americans and Australian aborigines “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”. Macaulay, the founder of India’s current educational system noted that his aim was to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

This attitude continued to the 19th and 20th century. Macaulay noted that Indian culture and languages are “fruitful of monstrous superstitions. We are to teach false history, false astronomy, false medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion.” Churchill called India “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” It was the white man’s burden to save the colonies from themselves and the idolators from their headlong rush to hell.

Colonial powers ensured the total despoilation of prosperous countries like India and China, which were the top two richest countries in the world. Both the countries contributed to 50-60% of the world’s GDP for millennia. When the British left India, the country was in ruins, torn into pieces and contributing to less than 2% of the world’s manufacturing capacity. Around three million Bengalis were made to starve to death to ensure British got the rations to win the Second World War. The same British politicians had the gall to pass a resolution on March 9, 2021 to debate the state off Indian democracy. The House of Commons blasted India after debating India’s internal politics and agricultural reform, which the IMF had paradoxically described as “a significant step forward” in removing middlemen, enhancing efficiency and supporting rural growth. Would the British prefer that 50% of India’s population earn less than 1000 dollars a year perpetually, while ensuring that their own population continue to make 48000 dollars a year in terms of GNI per capita into perpetuity. Is there fear that India farmers will take the overpriced service jobs in Europe and do it cheaper and more efficiently, using the model that China has employed so successfully?

2019 was one of the most galling moments to British overlords still clinging to the past. For the first time ever, India’s GDP for the first time ever crossed the GDP of the United Kingdom. With falling birth rates, abysmal innovations in the tech sector and the Chinese monopoly of world’s manufacturing, Britain and Europe have to witness the rise of China and India and watch their steady slide to obsolescence.

Mistakes of the past:

This article does not mean to absolve Indian leaders of blame in guaranteeing political freedom. India’s model of governance is closest to a totalitarian autocracy. Instances of democratic tyranny abound before and after independence. The darling of the western press, Gandhi was infamous for ruling the Indian Congress Party with an iron fist. In 1946, Gandhipersonally overruled the overwhelming decision of 80% of Congress committees to select Sardar Patel as the first Prime Minister. The balance 20% had abstained from voting rather than vote for Nehru. Despite Nehru having zero support within his own party, Gandhi enforced his autocratic choice on the party and thereby the country.[4]

Nehru and Indira Gandhi presided over one-party autocracies and ruled like absolute monarchs. Nehru controlled both houses of Parliament and virtually every state government during his seventeen years rule. His anti-free market and anti-American proclivities were in full flow when he rejected US aid worth 1.5 billion dollars a year in 1959, promised by President Kennedy to industrialize the Indian economy and increase income by 25-30% a year.[5] If the offer was accepted, India would have begun liberalization and reform a full 21 years before China, and India would now have been probably richer and more powerful than China. Inspite of his socialist leanings, in 1962, Nehru was beseeching the US and UK to send help to prevent Chinese aggression on the border.

The Congress party dismissed popular governments by using the infamous article 356 no less than 93 times in their rule over six decades. Indira Gandhi was infamous for imposing Emergency on the country at the slightest hint of judicial opposition to her despotism. Her sycophants declared that “India is Indira and Indira is India.” Is Indian democracy any more fragile than what it already was?

Conclusion:

Journalists have posited the question as to why India is sensitive to criticism by foreign media, when it relishes their adulation. The reason is that because of its colonial past and centuries of exploitation, India is deeply suspicious of foreign meddling in the name of friendly censures. Blaming the victim for overreacting to bad news is hardly sensible.

It is time for India and Asia to recognize that Western criticism which may sometimes hold a mirror, can often be a legacy of colonialism. In addition, Canada, UK and other countries are also openly interfering in Indian affairs is appease specific votebanks in their countries. These votebanks typically comprise of wealthy religious communities made up of Indian diaspora.

The sudden burst of criticism from many quarters in the west is also a reminder that the Indian opposition having failed to win the trust of people on the ground, is behind many of the statements coming from abroad, in their pointless quest to embarrass the national government. It would serve the opposition and the country better, if instead of orchestrating ivory tower campaigns, the opposition in India gets closer to the actual reality on the ground and work genuinely to improve the lives of the poor. A couple of trumped-up media reports is no counterbalance to the fact that 229 million voters had made a specific electoral choice in the 2019 national elections. If the opposition is behind the spate of opprobrium, damaging India’s reputation is the same as cutting off the nose to spite the face. Blind opposition to every reform initiated by the Central government, will only remove the opposition from the minimal space it occupies at the present.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/14/thatcher-knew-of-equatorial-giunea-coup-attempt

[2] https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchill-on-india/

[3] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/inglorious-empire-what-the-british-did-to-india-1.2981299

[4] https://theprint.in/opinion/jawaharlal-nehrus-election-as-indias-first-prime-minister-wasnt-unanimous/34519/

[5] https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/india-and-the-us-conference-washington-dc-19590504

Published by Vinod Aravindakshan

Engineer, Economist and Manager

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