Why India is a Democracy

Sanjay Sipahimalani
·Dead Tree Diaries

Let me begin with two questions: Who is Pakistan's current Chief of Army Staff? I suspect General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's name rings a bell even for those who did not answer correctly. Now, who is India's current Chief of Army Staff? It's General Vijay Kumar Singh, and chances are you know nothing about him. This isn't because he has a generic name, the sort Amitabh Bachchan might adopt to play COAS in a Bollywood thriller, but because, unlike his Pakistani counterpart, General Singh rarely figures in the news. Which is not a bad thing at all. The firewall between India's civilian administration and its military is the single most important factor ensuring we continue on a democratic path. Unfortunately, since it is defined in the negative, as an absence of military interference in everyday life, it is the least heralded of India's accomplishments in the journey to a truly representative political system.
India's parliamentary apparatus, which has functioned for sixty-five years with only a brief interruption in the mid-1970s, is generally accepted as uniquely robust and durable among developing nations. Naturally, the issue of why India remained democratic while so many countries succumbed to dictatorship interests historians and social scientists. It is often suggested that this country's diversity has preempted authoritarian rule, but the argument could easily be turned on its head, as it often was in the 1940s, to suggest that India's lack of ethnic and linguistic cohesion dooms it to disintegration unless kept intact by autocracy. Another view places Hinduism at the root of Indian democracy. Since both independent India and Pakistan were born with a heritage of British institutions and respect for parliament, India's relatively greater success in institutionalising democracy must stem from Hinduism's pluralism and tolerance, the argument goes. However, the only other Hindu majority state in the world, Nepal, has a very patchy democratic record, evidence that the Hindu religion has no essential connection with egalitarian government. The Hindutva argument fits well with assertions common in the world at large about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Should the Arab Spring live up to its promise, such assertions will be disproved once and for all.
For the moment, let us consider what binds together the dictators who have abdicated this year, or might be removed from power in the near future. Tunisia's Ben Ali, Libya's Gaddafi, Egypt's Mubarak, Syria's Assad, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh are all Arabs, and they are all Muslims. They have also all been military officers. Bashar al-Assad was only drafted into the army after becoming heir to the Syrian throne, but his father Hafez al-Assad was a fighter pilot.
Moving east of the current crisis, and back in time, we encounter dictators who were not Arabs, but were Muslim: Ayub, Yahya, Zia, Musharraf, Ziaur Rahman, Ershad. They, too, all had a military background. Further east yet, we come across the Burmese Generals; Suharto of Indonesia; Bainimarama of Fiji; and, crossing the Pacific, the banana republics of Central America; Chile's Pinochet; Argentina's anti-Peronist junta; and so on. Wikipedia lists 80 nations that have found themselves under military dictatorship for substantial spells, and the name of virtually every major developing nation is included. The conclusion's clear: there's only one common factor tying together modern dictatorships, and it isn't the rulers' ethnicity or religious affiliation, but their association with the military.
The question of why India's government didn't turn dictatorial, then, is better phrased as: How is it that India, almost alone among developing nations, never came under the army's spell?
It certainly wasn't mere happenstance: such things do not occur by accident. It was a carefully thought out strategy implemented by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's much maligned first Prime Minister, the anniversary of whose death came and went with little fanfare between my last column and this one. Nehru's achievement is best illustrated by alluding to a series of instances where military and civilian authority were at odds in the subcontinent. The most famous of these is over a century old, a dispute between a Viceroy and a war hero. Lord Kitchener, who came to India as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in 1902, wanted all power in military matters to vest in him, rather than be divided between himself and the military member of the Executive Council. When the Viceroy Lord Curzon rejected his proposal, Kitchener threatened to resign, and broke the chain of command by lobbying London directly. The British government pandered to him, taking account of his popularity following exploits in Sudan and southern Africa. Curzon resigned as a consequence of the dispute, and Kitchener got his centralised command, but it proved unwieldy both in India and in Europe during the First World War. After a paucity of ammunition scuttled a major British WWI offensive, Kitchener, then Secretary of State for War, was relieved of control over munitions. The episode demonstrates that the Generals' solution need not be the right one even in military matters.
Jawaharlal Nehru faced an analogous crisis in 1948, when General Roy Bucher, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army, threatened to resign just before the annexation of Hyderabad State. Bucher believed India's forces, already stretched in Kashmir, were ill-equipped for a second campaign. Nehru backed Sardar Patel against the advice of his military chief, and Hyderabad became part of India after an invasion which the Prime Minister euphemistically termed a "police action".
Bucher was succeeded by General K.M. Cariappa who, while still a Brigadier, had proposed to Lord Mountbatten's Chief of Staff that power be handed over to the army under a civilian head at independence. Although Cariappa never attempted a coup while Commander-in-Chief, he did make political noises, and Nehru packed him off to Australia as High Commissioner immediately after his term ended. It may appear a paranoid gesture, but popular heroes are always a potential threat to democracies, and it's better to be safe than sorry.
In 1961, the then COAS, General Thimayya, submitted his resignation over differences with Defence Minister Krishna Menon. Nehru persuaded Thimayya to see out his term, but made it clear in parliament that civilian authority had to be paramount. The next year, India suffered a defeat to China in a border war, and Krishna Menon became the fall guy. He is now one of the most reviled figures in India's post-independence history.
It is questionable if India could ever have held the Aksai Chin region against a Chinese invasion, considering the Chinese could supply their forces through a land route while India's only connection with the area was by air. However, having inadequate space to delve into that conflict's background, I will, for argument's sake, accept that General Thimayya was a visionary who might have put a winning strategy in place against the Chinese threat, and Krishna Menon's intransigence was responsible for the 1962 debacle. Even granting the civilian leadership failed the military and the nation in the Chinese instance, is India's overall record so bad?
Nationalists appear to measure success and failure primarily in terms of territories gained through force and ceded in defeat. By that account, India has done exceptionally well since 1947. Under Nehru, we gobbled up most of Jammu and Kashmir; all of Hyderabad State; and the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman and Diu. On the debit side, we lost the barren Aksai Chin, which was of little importance to us, but vital to China as a link between Tibet and Xinjiang.
'Most of Jammu and Kashmir' isn't good enough for nationalists, though the erstwhile princely state should have gone entirely to Pakistan, at least judging by the logic India used in taking over Junagadh and Hyderabad. Kashmir was Pakistan's to lose, and it was arguably lost when the acting Commander-in-Chief General Douglas Gracey disobeyed Muhammad Ali Jinnah's orders. Jinnah wanted the Pakistani army to march into Kashmir, but General Gracey flatly refused to comply. Instead, Pakistan sent in tribal insurgents who, instead of heading as quickly as possible for Srinagar, performed a loot and pillage routine on the way. This alienated local Kashmiris, and gave India time to accept the accession of the state and fly troops into Srinagar. As Indian troops pushed the insurgents back, General Gracey belatedly agreed that professional armed soldiers needed to play a part from Pakistan's side. While India continued to hold the initiative, a drawish position was achieved on the Kashmir chessboard, and became today's Line of Control. For his act of rebellion, Gracey was rewarded with promotion to full-fledged C-in-C. Jinnah had established a precedent of kowtowing to the military, and the results are evident in that nation's later history.
In regard to the curtailing of the military's power, every Indian leader since Nehru has taken his legacy forward. Service chiefs have seen their protocol status downgraded repeatedly. India's security is now handled by a welter of military, paramilitary, and intelligence organisations answerable to different civilian departments. This creates inefficiency and a lack of coordination, but it's a price well worth paying. Pakistan has a single command to co-ordinate different intelligence inputs; it is called the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, popularly known as the ISI. Not only does the ISI appear to work independently of civilian control, but, as demonstrated by the recent attack on the Mehran naval base as well as the constant targetting of civilians in bombings, it isn't particularly good at staving off militants.
The greatest danger ahead lies in believing that India is somehow unique, that we are immune to the threat of a military takeover. A close look at the situation in Kashmir and the North-East suggests a different possibility, one in which emergency rule, once established, is extended indefinitely instead of being employed for a short period as happened between 1975 and 1977. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 gives the security forces huge latitude in 'disturbed areas'. Armies love impunity, and are loath to give it up once they have it. But impunity spurs wanton arrests and killings, which create a backlash that can then be used to justify the continuation of emergency powers. Which is why, despite the recommendations of a review committee, pressure by human rights groups, and the wishes of democratically elected state governments, AFSPA has persisted, in some areas for over half a century.
Egypt's emergency law has been in place since 1967; Syria's, just lifted, was promulgated back in 1963. Not only could this happen to us, it is happening to us in substantial portions of the country.