Frankly Assessing India's Democracy and Its Future

Siddharth Varadarajan (L) and Ashutosh Varshney (R) in Mumbai on January 8, 2014. (Asia Society India Centre)
Siddharth Varadarajan (L) and Ashutosh Varshney (R) in Mumbai on January 8, 2014. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, January 8, 2014 — India's democracy is a genuine modern marvel. The survival of the world's largest democracy stands as a great contradiction to the conventional wisdom of political science. To help unravel the mystery of India's democracy and provide expert insight into its future as the campaign for the 2014 federal election heats up, Asia Society India Centre presented a programme featuring political scientist Ashutosh Varshney around the release of his book Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy. Varshney is a renowned academic and author and is currently Sol Goldman at Brown University and Director of the Brown-India Initiative.

Siddharth Varadarajan, journalist and formed editor of The Hindu, joined Varshney in discussion in front of a packed audience at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai. Leo Puri, Managing Director of UTI Asset Management Company, a corporate sponsor of the Asia Society, opened the programme. He set the stage with insightful opening remarks that provided a corporate perspective on recent political developments that will potentially change the relationship between Indian business and the state. He described an emerging sensation within the business community of entering a "period of deep uncertainty" as the growing anti-corruption agenda could mean the rules of the game will change.

The programme illustrated Varshney's passion for Indian politics and drew on his expansive knowledge of India's history and political landscape. He sought to answer the "key question": Why has India's democracy lasted so long despite the "extremely high" odds stacked against it and given the failures of comparable nations in Pakistan and Indonesia? Varshney's investigation outlined the central arguments of his book, complemented by excerpts from the work of eminent 19th-century thinkers Mill, Stratchey, and Twain. In discussion with Varadarajan and in response to questioning from the audience, the focus shifted towards current trends in Indian politics.

Varshney did not shy away from controversial hot topics, presenting his views on the Indian state's recent repression of public protests, degeneration of the judiciary, elite capture in the political class and the persistent problem of corruption. He also provided valuable insight into the emerging dynamics of the fast-approaching national election. He discussed the new and exciting Aam Aadmi Party, characterising their focus on fighting corruption as "steps in the right direction" while keenly anticipating the public release of their vital economic platform.

Turning to Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, Varshney cited the danger of anti-democratic Hindu nationalism but emphasised how conducting a national campaign targeted to a national audience had "vastly reduced Modi's anti-Muslim virulence." By the programme's conclusion, the capacity audience left with a sharpened perception of the state of Indian politics and an eager anticipation to follow further developments in the election campaign.

Reported by Thomas Pierce, Intern, Asia Society India Centre.

Video: Highlights from the programme (10 min., 7 sec.)

Outreach partners: