Skip to main content Accessibility help

Degrees of Democracy: Some Comparative Lessons from India

  • Patrick Heller (a1)

This article draws on the case of India to address the question of democratization by exploring the dynamic interplay of the formal, effective, and substantive dimensions of democracy. Fifty-three years of almost uninterrupted democratic rule in India have done little to reduce the political, social, and economic marginalization of India's popular classes. Within India the state of Kerala stands out as an exception. Democratic institutions have effectively managed social conflict and have also helped secure substantive gains for subordinate classes. Kerala's departure from the national trajectory is located in historical patterns of social mobilization that coalesced around lower-class interests and produced forms of state-society engagement conducive to democratic deepening. Contrary to much of the transition literature, this case suggests that high levels of mobilization and redistributive demands have democracy-enhancing effects.

Hide All

1 Linz, Juan and Stepan, Alfred, Problems of Democratic Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

2 Ibid., 6.

3 O'Donnell, , “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries,” World Development 21, no. 8 (1993).

4 Huber, Rueschemeyer, and Stephens provide a discussion of why a “vicious cycle” of interaction between these three dimensions of democracy—which they label formal, participatory, and social—is symptomatic of new democracies. Huber, Evelyne, Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, and Stephens, John D., “The Paradoxes of Contemporary Democracy: Formal, Participatory, and Social Dimensions,” in Anderson, Lisa, ed., Transitions to Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

5 Mehta, for example, notes that “there is a widespread sense that the state and its laws can be manipulated to serve particular interests, that official decisions are guided by no principle but expediency, and that even this uncertain restraint on the arbitrary use of power is wearing thin.” Mehta, Pratap, “India: Fragmentation amid Consensus,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 1 (1997). See also Bose, Sugata and Jalal, Ayesha, eds., Nationalism, Democracy and Development (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 59.

6 Although this is hardly surprising in a federal system marked by such a high degree of socioeconomic heterogeneity, most treatments of Indian democracy focus on the national picture. When democracy is examined at the subnational level, the emphasis has almost always been on variations in the political party system, not on democratic deepening. State-level studies moreover remain more concerned with scaling-up to develop theories of Indian democracy than with scaling-down to develop theories of Indian democracies.

7 Kohli, , The State and Poverty in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); idem, Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

8 Varshney, Ashutosh, “Is India Becoming More Democratic,” Journal of Asian Studies 59 (February 2000).

9 On all the key measures of quality of life, Kerala has achieved levels that rival those of the West and are decades ahead of national averages. For a classic early study, see United Nations, Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy: A Case Study of Selected Issues with Reference to Kerala (New York: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 1975). For the most recent comparison with India, see Drèze, Jean and Sen, Amartya, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995). Important studies that highlight the role of social movements include Franke, Richard and Chasin, Barbara, Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (San Francisco: Food First Development Report no. 6, 1989); Kannán, K. P., Of Rural Proletarian Struggles: Mobilization and Organization of Rural Workers in South-West India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Ramachandran, V. K., “On Kerala's Development Achievements,” in Drèze, Jean and Sen, Amartya, eds., Indian Development (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).

10 Most notably, see O'Donnell, Guillermo, Schmitter, Philippe, and Whitehead, Laurence, eds., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy, 4 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). In a review of the transition literature, Shin writes that the establishment of “viable democracy” is seen as “a product of strategic interactions and arrangements among political elites, conscious choices among various types of democratic constitutions, and electoral and party systems.” Shin, Doh Chull, “On the Third Wave of Democratization: A Synthesis and Evaluation of Recent Theory and Research,” World Politics 47 (October 1994), 139.

11 Moore, , Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

12 If the first generation of analysts of democratic transitions highlighted the role of elite political actors (see fn. 10), a second generation has looked beyond the moment of the negotiation of transitions to more historical explanations in which the role of subordinate actors assumes greater explanatory weight. See, for example, Collier, Ruth B. and Collier, David, Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Collier, Ruth B. and Mahoney, James, “Adding Collective Actors to Collective Outcomes: Labor and Recent Democratization in South America and Southern Europe,” Comparative Politics 24, no. 3 (1997); Pereira, Anthony, The End of the Peasantry: The Rural Lahor Movement in Northeast Brazil, 1961–1988 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997); Seidman, Gay W., Manufacturing Militance: Workers' Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Yashar, Deborah, Demanding Democracy: Reform and Reaction in Costa Rica and Guatemala, 1870s–1950s (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997); and Adler, Glenn and Webster, Eddie, “Challenging Transition Theory: The Labor Movement, Radical Reform, and Transition to Democracy in South Africa,” Politics and Society 23 (March 1995). For the most important treatment of how subordinate actors, and in particular working classes, have contributed to democratic deepening, see Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Stephens, Evelyne Huber, and Stephens, John D., Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

13 Migdal, Joel, Kohli, Atul, and Shue, Vivienne, eds., State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

14 Huber, , Rueschemeyer, , and Stephens, (fn. 4), 168.

15 O'Donnell, (fn. 3), 1361.

17 Marshall, , Citizenship and Social Class, ed. Bottomore, Tom (London: Pluto Press, 1992).

18 For an important discussion of this point, see Fox, Jonathan, “The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship: Lessons from Mexico,” World Politics 46 (January 1994).

19 Weyland, Kurt, Democracy without Equity: Failures of Reform in Brazil (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 5.

20 Vilas, Carlos, “Democracy and the Whereabouts of Participation,” in Chalmers, Doug, Martin, Scott, and Piester, Kerianne, eds., The New Politics of Inequality in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19.

21 Mouzelis, Nicos, “Modernity, Late Development and Civil Society,” in Hall, John A., ed., Civil Society: Theory, History and Comparison (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995).

22 Przeworski, Adam et al., Sustainable Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 70. In an earlier work Przeworski framed the question of transitions in static political equilibria terms, concluding that successful transitions are built on elite pacts that are “inevitably conservative, economically and socially.” Quoted in Adler and Webster (fn. 12), 84.

23 Comisso, Ellen, “Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty? Reflections on Five Years of Competitive Politics in Eastern Europe,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 30, no. 1 (1997).

24 Przeworski, Adam, “The Neoliberal Fallacy,” Journal of Democracy 3, no. 3 (1992).

25 Linz, and Stepan, (fn. 1), 1213.

26 There are a total of twenty-five states in India, fifteen of which have populations surpassing fifteen million (hereafter the “major” states). Indian states have their own legislatures and executives and under India's federal constitution enjoy a wide range of powers and responsibilities, including independent sources of revenue collection (primarily sales taxes) and a wide range of development functions.

27 One could simply point to border areas—the Northeast region, Kashmir, and Punjab—where separatist struggles have led to the suspension of basic democratic rights as the extreme cases of undemocratic practice. These, however, are in effect areas where the legitimacy of the nation-state itself is contested. It is variation within the boundaries of the consolidated and legitimated Indian nation-state that are of concern here.

28 Bardhan, Pranab, The Political Economy of Development in India (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984).

29 In 1982, 66.6 percent of rural households fell below the marginal ownership category of 2.5 acres. Together they accounted for 12.2 percent of total land ownership, less than the 14.3 percent share of the top 1 percent of households. Kurien, C. T., The Economy: An Interpretive Introduction (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992), 321.

30 For Brazil, see Weyland (fn. 19). For Africa, see Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

31 Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 115.

32 Chhibber, Pradeep, Democracy without Associations: Transformation of the Party System and Social Cleavages in India (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

33 See Drèze and Sen (fn. 9, 1995 and 1996); and Kohli (fn. 7, 1987).

34 Herring, Ronald, “Embedded Particularism: India's Failed Developmental State,” in Woo-Cumings, Meredith, ed., The Developmental State (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).

35 Bardhan, Pranab, “Sharing the Spoils: Group Equity, Development, and Democracy” (Manuscript, Department of Economics, University of California, Berkeley, 1997), 16.

36 See Bardhan (fn. 28); Rudolph, Lloyd I. and Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Herring (fn. 34).

37 Brass, Paul R., The Politics of India since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 334.

38 Ashutosh Varshney, “Mass Politics or Elite Politics? India's Economic Reforms in Comparative Perspective” (Paper presented at the Conference on India's Economic Reforms, Center for International Affairs and Harvard Institute of International Development, Harvard University, Cambridge, December 13–14, 1996), 3.

39 Sumantra Bose, “‘Hindu Nationalism’ and the Crisis of the Indian State,” in Bose, and Jalal, (fn. 5), 109.

40 Mehta, (fn. 5), 64.

41 Weyland (fn. 19).

42 O'Donnell, (fn. 3), 1365–67.

43 To cite one example: “According to the Chief Election Commissioner, 180 of Uttar Pradesh's [India's most populous state] Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have criminal cases pending against them, at least 52 of which involve ‘heinous crimes’ such as rape and murder.” Jean Drèze and Haris Gazdar, “Uttar Pradesh: The Burden of Inertia,” in Drèze, and Sen, (fn. 9, 1996), 108.

44 See Kothari, Rajni, State against Democracy: In Search of Humane Governance (Delhi: Ajanta Books, 1988).

45 Brass, (fn. 37), 60.

46 See Ramachandran (fn. 9).

47 Jeffrey, Robin, Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala Became a “Model” (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1992), 3.

48 These observations are based on my own fieldwork conducted in 1991–92 and in the summers of 1997 and 1999. Heller, , The Labor of Development: Workers in the Transformation of Capitalism in Kerala, India (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999); and idem, “Social Capital as Product of Class Mobilization and State Intervention: Industrial Workers in Kerala, India,” World Development 24, no. 6 (1996). In a detailed study that focuses on the North Kerala city of Calicut, Varshney concludes that “[m]uch like Tocqueville's America, Calicut is a place of ‘joiners.’ Associations of all kinds—business, labor, professional, social, theater, film, sports, art, reading—abound.” Varshney, Ashutosh, Civic Life and Ethnic Conflict: Hindus and Muslims in India (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming), manuscript pp. 130–31.

49 The retention rate in primary schools—the percentage of children having entered primary school who complete the fifth grade—is 82 percent in Kerala as against 26 percent for India as a whole. Weiner, Myron, The Child and the State in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 174.

50 Rudolph and Rudolph (fn. 36).

51 Kaviraj, Sudipta, “A Critique of the Passive Revolution,” in Chatterjee, Partha, ed., State and Politics in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 46.

52 For an extended discussion, see Heller (fn. 48, 1999), chap. 6.

53 The Communist Party of India (CPI) was unified until 1965 when it split into the CPI and the CPI(M), or as it is more simply known the CPM. The CPM has emerged as the dominant Communist Party in both West Bengal and Kerala.

54 Huntington, Samuel, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

55 See Heller, (fn. 48, 1999), chaps. 5, 6, and 7.

56 Varshney (fn. 48) found that out of seventeen states, Kerala ranked the fourth lowest in the number of per capita deaths in urban communal riots (manuscript p. 112); this is based on a large-N data set on Hindu-Muslim violence—1950–95—jointly produced with Steve Wilkinson. Of the three states ranking below Kerala, the Punjab has been the site of sustained rural violence and neither Haryana nor Tamil Nadu has a sizable Muslim population.

57 In Kerala's 1995 local government elections, the BJP captured only 3 out of 1,200 panchayats, and only 1 out of 26 municipalities. Kerala remains the only major state in India in which the BJP has never secured a seat in the national parliament.

58 See Drèze and Sen (fn. 9, 1995).

59 See fn. 9. For an extended comparative assessment of the success of Kerala's land reforms, see Herring, Ronald, Land to the Tiller: The Political Economy of Agrarian Reform in South Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

60 Putnam, (fn. 31), 180.

61 Jeffrey, Robin, The Decline of Nair Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore, 1947–1908 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1976).

62 Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens (fn. 12).

63 Ibid., 8.

64 Ibid., 50.

65 See Weiner, Myron, The Indian Paradox: Essays in Indian Politics, ed. Varshney, Ashutosh (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989). Alternatively, Jalal has argued that there is in fact little difference between Pakistan and India in that both have inherited state forms that she describes as “bureaucratic authoritarianism”; Jalal, Ayesha, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

66 Moore, (fn. 11), 354–77.

67 Pandey, Gyan, “Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism: The Peasant Movement in Awadh, 1921–22,” in Guha, Rananjit and Spivak, Gayatri, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

68 For a seminal analysis, see Frankel, Francine, India's Political Economy, 1947–1977 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

69 Przeworski, Adam, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 69.

70 Tilly, Charles, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1978).

71 Menon, Dilip, Caste, Nationalism and Communism in South India: Malabar 1900–1948 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 146.

72 Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chap. 7.

73 Cited in ibid., 22.

74 Speaking of the early days of the KCSP in Malabar, K. P. Gopalan noted that “we had socialist aims without knowing anything about socialism”; cited in Menon (fn. 71), 147.

75 Menon (fn. 71), chap. 5.

76 In a critique of Putnam's cultural and historical explanation of the sources of civicness in North Italy, Tarrow notes that in the past and the present “electorates were deliberately mobilized on the basis of networks of mass organizations and social and recreational associations; and in both, civic competence was deliberately developed after World War II as a symbol of the left-wing parties' governing capacity.” Tarrow, Sydney, “Making Social Science Work across Space and Time: A Critical Reflection of Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work,” American Political Science Review 90, no. 2 (1996), 394.

77 Ronald Herring, “From Fanaticism to Power: Ratchet Politics and Peasant Mobilization in South India, 1836–1956” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, Honolulu, April 11–14, 1996).

78 The demand-side dynamic for health and education in Kerala predates the democratic period and can be tied to the comparatively progressive educational and public health policies of the princely state of Travancore. See Sen, Gita, “Social Needs and Public Accountability,” in Wuyts, Marc, Mackintosh, Maureen, and Hewitt, Tom, Development Policy and Public Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, the Open University Press, 1992). The transition from the Brahmanical paternalism of Travancore, which targeted communities (which in many ways has its contemporary counterpart in the populism of the Indian state), to the social citizenship of Kerala's modern welfare state is the direct outcome of class politics. Moreover, it is only with the advent of the redistributive state that the gap between Malabar and Travancore, which in the nineteenth century was pronounced on all social development indicators, was dramatically closed in the post-1957 period. See T. N. Krishnan and M. Kabir, “Social Intermediation and Health Transition: Lessons from Kerala,” Working Paper no. 251 (Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, 1992).

79 Kohli (fn. 7, 1990), chap. 10.

80 In contrast, the CPM in West Bengal, having enjoyed the fruits and resources of state power for twenty-three years, has become far more bureaucratic and clientelistic. See Echeverri-Gent, John, “Public Participation and Poverty Alleviation: The Experience of Reform Communists in India's West Bengal,” World Development 29 (October 1992).

81 Linz and Stepan (fn. 1) write that “properly understood, democracy is more than a regime; it is an interacting system” (p. 13). A key dynamic in the system derives from the distinct but complementary roles that political and civil society play in shaping and representing values and interests. See Linz and Stepan (fn. 1), 8–9.

82 To quote Huntington: “Democratic regimes that last have seldom, if ever, been instituted by mass popular action.” Huntington, Samuel, “Will More Countries Become Democratic?Political Science Quarterly 99, no. 2 (1984), 212, emphasis added.

83 Tilly, Charles, “Processes and Mechanisms of Democratization,” Sociological Theory 18 (March 2000), 8.

84 Cohen, Joshua and Rogers, Joel, “Secondary Associations and Democratic Governance,” Politics and Society 20, no. 4 (1992).

85 See Fox (fn. 18).

86 Tilly (fn. 83).

87 See Tharamangalam, Joseph, “The Perils of Development without Economic Growth: The Development Debacle of Kerala, India,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30, no. 1 (1998). For responses to Tharamangalam, see Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30, no. 3 (1998).

88 Heller (fn. 48, 1999).

89 A recent World Bank study found that from 1957–58 to 1990–91 Kerala experienced the most rapid decline in poverty of any major state, including the Punjab and Haryana, India's capitalist growth success stories. Guarav Datt and Martin Ravallion, “Why Have Some Indian States Done Better Than Others at Reducing Poverty?” Policy Research Working Paper no. 1594 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1996).

90 Between 1986–87 and 1993–94 the factory sector grew at an annual average of 9.8 percent, well above the national average of 5.6 percent, and agriculture grew at 5.5 percent. A recent study on new investments in Kerala found a “tremendous increase” since 1991–92. Mani, Sunil, “Economic Liberal isation and Kerala's Industrial Sector: An Assessment of Investment Opportunities,” Economic and Political Weekly (August 24–31, 1996), 2326.

91 See Herring, Ronald, “From Structural Conflict to Agrarian Stalemate: Agrarian Reforms in South India,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 26, no. 3–4 (1991).

92 See Thomas Isaac, T. M. and Shridharan, E. M., “Kerala's Development and Its Politics,” Marxist Samvadan (Trivandrum) (October-December 1992); and Tornquist, Olle, The Next Left? Democratisation and Attempts to Renew the Radical Political Development Project (Copenhagen: NIAS reports, no. 24, 1995).

93 See Franke, Richard and Chasin, Barbara, “Power to the Malayalee People,” Economic and Political Weekly 31, no. 10 (1997).

94 These observations are based on research conducted in summer 1997 and 1999.

95 Weyland (fn. 19).

96 For an analysis of economic concessions made during the negotiated transition, see Marais, Hein, South Africa: Limits to Change (London: Zed Books, 1998). Mamdani (fn. 30) argues that “decentralized despotism”—the entrenched authority of chiefs—has stunted the development of civil society in postapartheid South Africa.

97 See Abers, Rebeca, “From Ideas to Practice: The Partido dos Trabalhadores and Participatory Governance in Brazil,” Latin American Perspectives 23, no. 4 (1996).

98 This follows Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944). See also Linz and Stepan (fn. 1), who write about a set of “socio-politically crafted and socio-politically accepted norms, institutions and regulations, which we call economic society, that mediate between state and market” (p. 11).

99 Minkoff provides an excellent critique of the overemphasis of the civil society literature on community-based origins of civic behavior and the resulting neglect of the role that more aggregated forms of association that transcend local community (social movements, advocacy groups) can play in nurturing civic identities. Minkoff, Debra, “Producing Social Capital: National Social Movements and Civil Soceity,” American Behavioral Scientist 40, no. 5 (1997).

100 Ibid., 612.

101 Claus Offe, “Homogeneity and Constitutional Democracy: Political Group Rights as an Answer to Identity Conflicts?” (Paper presented at the Conference for the Study of Political Thought, April 4–6, Columbia University, 1997), 6.

102 See Adler and Webster (fn. 12).

* This paper was first presented in the Politics and Identity Workshop at Columbia University. I would like to thank my colleagues at Columbia University—Anthony Marx, Doug Chalmers, Harrison White, and David Stark—as well as Peter Evans, Judith Tendier, T. M. Thomas Isaac, Atul Kohli, Ronald Herring, Peter Lange, Glenn Adler, and Robert Keohane for their feedback. I am especially grateful to Charles Tilly, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Charles Kurzman, Deborah Barrett, and the anonymous reviewers for their extensive comments and insights. The research for this paper was supported by the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed