In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democracy in India

  • Introduction
  • Pre-independence Churning of Ideas and Social Forces
  • Constitution and Public Institutions
  • Parties and Elections
  • Politics of Hindutva
  • Movements and Mobilizations
  • Political Economy and Public Policy
  • India and the World
  • Assessments and Overviews

Hinduism Democracy in India
Rajeshwari Deshpande, Suhas Palshikar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0190


Scholarly interest in India’s democratic politics has shifted from curiosity and skepticism to robust comparisons and possibilities of reimagining democracy. Citizen assessments of democracy are positive yet critical, as formal democracy in India completes seven decades of existence. The richness and the complex journey of Indian democracy can be appreciated only if one remembers that even before the formal inauguration of democracy in post-independence India, democratic politics had already begun to take shape, going back as far as the 19th century itself. In post-independence India, the arenas of competitive politics and popular mobilizations were the most richly democratized fields. Between 1951 and 2014, the national legislature has been elected on the basis of adult suffrage sixteen times, with an average turnout of 60 percent. This is in addition to the hundreds of state legislative elections in which the turnout is often greater. Electoral politics in India has not only gained its own rhythm, it has also thrown up a large number of political players in the form of parties, many of whom share power. This wide sharing of power among parties has happened despite the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system, which is otherwise expected to throw up a two-party system. Broadly speaking, there are four distinct arenas of contestations around which democratic mobilizations take shape in contemporary India: (1) regions, states, subregions, center-state relations, and internal developmental imbalance within states; (2) development policies, planning, industry versus agriculture, the issue of land acquisition and priority to be accorded to poverty eradication, welfare or growth-oriented models of development; (3) the caste question, power sharing by castes located lower in the traditional hierarchy, formation of caste blocs and strategies to ensure social justice; and (4) inter-religion relations, communalism, nature of nationalism, and the majoritarian tendency. These contestations take place at three levels. First, the institutional framework is a key terrain of contestations. The question of interpreting the constitution, the relationship among the three organs of government, and the search for new institutions of democratic governance are all instances of this politics of institutions. Electoral politics is the second terrain. Elections bring in not only competitiveness, but also a wide variety of configurations of interests. Third, India’s democracy has a rich component of social movements, which are aligned along party lines and also function autonomously from party politics. The literature on Indian democracy can be approached from a variety of standpoints. In presenting this bibliography, we have grouped academic writings on Indian democracy under the following eight themes: (1) The Pre-independence Churning of Ideas and Social Forces, (2) Constitution and Public Institutions, (3) Parties and Elections, (4) Politics of Hindutva, (5) Movements and Mobilizations, (6) Political Economy and Public Policy, (7) India and the World, and (8) Assessments and Overviews.

Pre-independence Churning of Ideas and Social Forces

Democracy, in the sense of elections based on adult suffrage, commenced in India only in 1951–1952. However, democracy in the sense of popular mobilizations, societal contestations, and formations of competing groups and parties had already begun before Independence. Moreover, the social churning during 19th century had already produced a memory (Bayly 2001) and rich debate about ideas such as group claims emanating from concerns of castes and religious communities, issues of individual freedom, and the regional versus national reference points for collective being (Chatterjee 2001, Deshpande 2009, O’Hanlon 1985). This varied and rich debate is reflected in the writings and actions of social-political activists and public intellectuals of 19th and early 20th centuries (Desai 1948, Kapila and Devji 2013, Palshikar 2014). A range of critical studies has emerged discussing these writings (Kaviraj 2010, Nandy 1983, Vajpeyi 2012), and any serious understanding of the indigenous roots of democratic thinking has to take into account the churning of the years since the mid-19th century. Contemporary writings on these developments, apart from offering varied historical interpretations, also engage in the exercise of relocating and appropriating the intellectual legacies within the context of ongoing political debates in India.

  • Bayly, C. A. Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India. New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 2001.

    This work by a major historian of modern India centers on the concept of patriotism and discusses the ideological and social background of Indian nationalism. It deciphers how the complex sentiment of patriotism emerged in India in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and how it engaged the rulers and the populace of different Indian regions. The author argues that the traditions of remembered patriotism during this period formed the basis of later Indian nationalism.

  • Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Chatterjee argues that the nationalist imagination in India developed beyond the political domain of the state. He shows how anticolonial nationalists in India took recourse to the spiritual domain of culture and premised the nationalist imagination on difference from the “West.” The book argues how in this process of normalizing diverse practices into the homogenous forms of a national culture, identities and aspirations of subordinate groups were suppressed and appropriated.

  • Desai, A. R. Social Background of Indian Nationalism. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1948.

    As a first-generation Indian Marxist sociologist, Desai employs a historical materialist approach in this work to understand the structural transformation of Indian society during the British period. The volume presents a comprehensive account of the transition of India from a medieval to a modern society as a prerequisite to a nuanced comprehension of the various manifestations of Indian nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Deshpande, G. P. The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi. New Delhi: Tulika, 2009.

    This tract addresses the historiography of 19th-century India from a different perspective. The book discusses ideas of three influential thinkers/ideologues in Marathi to understand how nationalist debates took shape in a regional language discourse, as well as the reception of these debates in Marathi/regional public sphere. The book thus points to a distinctive method of reading the history of ideas in any Indian language.

  • Kapila, Shruti, and Faisal Devji. Political Thought and Action: The Bhagavad Gita and Modern India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139524018

    Considers appropriations of the Bhagavad Gita in modern Indian political thought as a vantage point to engage with the tensions in Indian modernity. The authors reflect upon Indian perspectives on violence and war and on the linkages between the ethical and political as they emerged from the critical readings of the Gita by conservative, traditionalist, and modernist, liberal thinkers during the course of the Indian national movement.

  • Kaviraj, Sudipta. The Imaginary Institution of India. Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7312/kavi15222

    The essays in this volume present Indian nationalism as a field of ideas. The author puts forth two strands of argument to analyze the field of Indian nationalism. The first part of the book discusses the gradual processes through which European capitalist empires transformed precolonial Indian society and led to establishment of the British Indian colonial state. The second part follows the historical path of formation of complex structures of Indian nationalist ideology.

  • Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss of Recovery of Self under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    This influential tract is an enquiry into the psychological structures and cultural forces that supported or resisted the culture of colonialism in British India. The first part of the book decodes the psychology of colonialism, and the second part looks into the politics of resistance to colonialism, with a focus on Gandhi’s efforts to mold opposition to the lifestyle, values, and psychology of colonialism.

  • O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511563379

    The book chronicles the history of the non-Brahmin movement in western India. The main part of the book is devoted to the detailed exposition of ideas and arguments of Phule as the first leader and the most influential theoretician of the anti-caste movement in India. The book draws upon extensive reading of the original sources in Marathi and was one of the initial attempts to provide access to Phule’s ideas to English-speaking academia.

  • Palshikar, Sanjay. Evil and the Philosophy of Retribution: Modern Commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita. New Delhi: Routledge, 2014.

    This book discusses the diverse interpretations of the Gita adopted by Sri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Tilak, and Mahatma Gandhi. By addressing these modern commentaries on the Gita, the book seeks to present the different approaches to ideas of good and evil and show how modern intellectuals in colonial India crafted categories from traditional discourses. The book is an illustration of modern political thinking based in premodern debates.

  • Vajpeyi, Ananya. Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674067288

    This work is an enquiry into modern Indian political thought as it took shape at the cusp of arrival of modernity, nationalism, and democracy in India. Challenging the understandings of Indian nationalism as a derivative discourse, the book reflects upon the ways in which the founding figures of Indian nationalism critically engaged with their own traditions of thought and turned to classical texts in order to discover an original sense of Indian selfhood.

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