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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The democratisation of Indian democracy

Christophe Jaffrelot

Texte intégral

1August 2005

2Indian democracy has long been formal than substantial because it operated in a closed circuit. Admittedly, the transfer of power brought new men to assume positions of responsibility, but their sociological profile remained the same. In fact, three groups of the Indian elite, all of high caste, divided the power between themselves. Firstly, there were the intelligentsia, which consisted mainly of the Brahmin caste, who held many positions in the civil service and political parties and secondly, there were those from the business sector, mainly from the trading class (Vaishyas), and finally the land owners from the warrior castes (Kshatriyas), who were former princes (Maharajahs). These three groups had different interests.

3The intelligentsia who identified itself with the government considered that they had the authority to govern and justified their determination by the need to build the nation-state. Both out of concern for the liberation of the state, (“its” state), from the protection of the “traditional elites” as well as out of conviction, the intelligentsia therefore antagonised the “capitalists” and “feudal lords” by putting forward a nationalisation and land reform programme. These two groups had, however, acquired considerable assets since they controlled the economy and enjoyed tremendous social power. It was not long before the intelligentsia of the Congress acknowledged them because its members had come from the same social background. Some even weaved close ties with a certain Maharajah by working in his administration or with a businessman by becoming his lawyer.

  • 1 Gopal, K., “One party Dominance, Development and Trends”, CSDS, Party System and Election Studies,(...)

4Rather than entering into a purely antagonistic relationship from which no one would have easily come out on top, these three elites invented a form of conservative democracy from which they each benefited. The Congress made a strategic deal with companies and subsequently abandoned a number of socialist reforms that it had in the pipeline in exchange for financial support that certain company heads were already providing, even before independence. Between 1962 and 1968, Indian companies officially donated close to 26 million rupees to political parties, out of which 20.5 million was given to the congress1. The donations to the parties, however, only represented about a fifth of the funds coming from private sources. The majority was paid to individuals, the Prime Minister and other members of his government, but also to certain candidates bidding for a seat in parliament. This money was mainly used for financing election campaigns, which were highly controversial since the 1960s, as people, provoked by new political parties, were becoming increasingly against the Congress.

5The same transition from conflict to collaboration, or even the collusion of interests, could be observed in the relationship between the State intelligentsia and landowners. This conflict worsened in 1947 because for decades the landowners had been the Congress’ opponents. They had collaborated with the British to exercise their authority locally (or even regionally in the case of the princes, Maharajahs or other Nawabs). In its reaction and keeping with its socialist ideals, the Congress had included a land reform in its programme even before independence. After 1947, the vote was in favour of the reform, but implementing it turned out to be difficult. When Nehru was pushing for reforms, the Congress was increasing the number of exemptions in states (all states were practically under its control until 1967). Land ceilings were often raised beyond reason depending on the lack of irrigation or the number of people dependent on the owner. Above all, the authorities turned a blind eye to fraud, for example, the registering of land in the name of a parent in order to remain within the limits of the land ceilings and avoid having one’s land redistributed. Instead of continuing to isolate those who dominated the countryside, the congress finally chose to make them its allies. These people became the backbone of the “congress system” since, in exchange for the state’s leniency, they brought the Congress their tenants’ votes and the votes of people who were indebted to them (who made up the actual “bank votes”).

6Vote-catching strategies and conservatism thus dominated the first few decades of Indian democracy. The three elites found democracy to their liking as they could each reap the benefits. The intelligentsia was in control of the state due to their skills, the business sector could exploit their financial capacity better than in any other system where governors would not have needed their financial income to pay for their election campaigns. Landowners found themselves in the same situation, despite their main resource not being financial, but people (and therefore votes) on whom they depended.

  • 2 Kalelkar, K., Report of the Backward Classes Commission Vol. 1, Delhi, Government of India, and Va (...)

7The situation really only changed in the 1990s under the impact of positive discrimination measures with great political effects. Such programmes were not new in India. In fact, this country was a test to this type of social engineering, long before the United-States’ “affirmative action”. The British created schools for the poor at the end of the 19th century, they then reserved certain positions for them in the civil service during the inter-war years. Until independence, however, these policies only concerned the untouchable classes and the indigenous tribes. After 1947, the lower castes arrived. The Constituent Assembly invented the concept of Other Backward Classes (OBC) for them. This new socio-administrative category referred to groups other than the untouchables and the indigenous groups, which were to receive exceptional government aid. In 1953, a national committee was appointed to identify these groups and their needs, in accordance with the procedure indicated by Article 340 of the Constitution. It compiled a list of 2,399 low castes, but not the untouchables, and recommended setting up government quotas for them. The government rejected its report because it was not based on consistent indicators of social underdevelopment and was placing too much emphasis on the caste in definition of this underdevelopment, at a time when the state was trying to develop a universal (and socialist) concept of the Indian citizen2. The castes, whose names were on this list, had nevertheless understood the idea of campaigning for the first Backward Classes Commission’s report to be put into place. In several south Indian states, quotas favouring the OBC were therefore introduced in local governments and certain educational and university establishments. In the north of India, the process proved to be more difficult, as the balance of power was more tilted towards the upper classes, which represented up to a fifth of the population in a state such as Uttar Pradesh, and dominated the economy and agriculture, in particular.

8In the north of India, the situation of the rural areas developed for the benefit of the lower castes, following the Green Revolution in the 1960s, saw small farmers experience a relative economic growth. Realising that there is strength in numbers, they joined forces behind the political parties such as the Socialist Party and Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal (the Indian Revolution Party), which, founded in 1969, was renamed Bharatiya Lok Dal (Indian Peoples’ Party) in 1974. At the end of the 1970s, these parties gained power through the Janata Party (People’s Party) with which they merged in 1977. In 1978, the Janata Party government, where Charan Singh was Deputy Prime Minister, appointed a new Backward Classes Commission, named the Mandal Commission, after President B. P. Mandal. It submitted a report in 1980, which drew up a new list of the OBC castes amounting to 52% of the Indian population this time. To help them work their way up socially and economically, the Mandal report recommended that 27% of the central government posts be reserved for them.

  • 3 The Indian Administrative Service, an elite body recruited through competitive examinations, was c (...)

9The Congress came back to power in 1980 and the successive Congress governments were careful not to put the measures described in this report into practice. The victory of the Opposition in 1989, however, enabled the new Prime Minister, V. P. Singh, to announce its implementation in August 1990, as much in the interest of social justice as for gaining the support of the OBC’s electorate for themselves. Some members of the upper castes reacted violently to this and questioned the so-called monopoly that the OBC castes enjoyed in senior positions of the civil service3. The protests were particularly violent in Delhi, where a large number of upper caste students took to the streets. Some even set themselves on fire as a protest. The Supreme Court, to which the higher Hindu castes appealed, contesting the constitutionality of the Mandal report, dissolved V. P Singh’s decision soon after. The OBC retaliated, forming a new political identity. The OBC were becoming aware of the common interests of their members. The prospect of quotas in the government was its symbol and the need to form a united front to exploit their main strength, was their size in numbers. They therefore voted together and for their own people, as illustrated by the development of the sociological profile of the elected Members of Parliament from the “Hindi Belt”. In this region that brought together Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Chandigarh, the members elected to the Lok Sabha were mainly from the upper classes until the 1970s. The elections in 1977, those of the first change in power, had marked the beginning of a change, since the percentage of the Members of Parliament from the upper classes declined to below 50% (48.2% to be precise) for the first time. This phenomenon worsened during the second transfer of power in 1989, when the percentage of OBC doubled, amounting to a fifth of the elected members, while that of the upper castes fell below 40%, barely over 38.2%. The V. P. Singh government therefore represented many lower castes in the process of climbing the social and political ladder. The return of the Congress in 1991 did not, however, question this growth not the decline of the upper classes within the Assembly at the same time, which has become increasingly pronounced ever since. Today, the upper class Members of Parliament only represent 33% of the elected members of the “Hindi Belt” while those from the OBC castes exceed 25%. The gap has never been so narrow and it will undoubtedly close in even further until the elected members of the lower classes outnumber the upper classes. Power has already been handed over to those from the lower castes in the Indian Union states. The north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan have mostly been governed by the OBC since the beginning of the decade. The fact of an untouchable heading a state in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra for example, and no longer only as the head of the country (as was the case with Narayanan, honorary President of the Republic in the 1990s), has now become somewhat normal.

10The political trajectory of the “post Mandal period” resulted in the democratisation of Indian democracy. In many cases, the shifts in power give way to the transformation of the sociological profile of those in power because they revolve around positions of responsibility of the parties that have become the mouthpiece of lower classes, be they untouchables or from the OBC. In doing so, India is embarking on the path towards an actual silent revolution. While it is far from having entered its maturity phase, the current process is unique, as the transfer of power has not yet reached all the decision-making bodies, beginning with the central government. No country has actually seen the lower classes, bearing the roots of their origin, gain power in this way through the ballot box without bloodshed. Paradoxically, the caste is the vehicle of this change allowing the masses to unify their interests and weight in the political game. The castes are no longer enmeshed in a vertical hierarchy any more, where those with a low social status looked up to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas who dominated them. They are a part of a horizontal logic where they are none other than interest groups in competition in the political and social arena. The caste has thus contributed to providing Indian democracy the foundation that it needed. The peripheral groups that remained outside to the system are now integrated and are investing even more effort than the elite, whose members, having lost, have willingly adopted an anti-parliamentarism “rotten” attitude. This high-class elite now believes more in the market than in democracy, which enables the two to coexist in a rare alchemy in the southern hemisphere.

  • 4 The first three castes or Varnas (a, b, c) allegedly correspond to Aryan or Indo-European invaders
  • 5 According to the 1931 census, this is the last accurate figure available on the castes.
  • 6 Unregistered religious minorities from the castes and the tribes make up the remaining 100.

Castes4 and tribes

% of the Indian population5

Brahmins (a)


Kshatriyas (b)


Vaishyas (c)


Shudras/Other Backward Classes (OBC)


Listed castes (untouchables)


Listed tribes (indigenous)




According to the 1931 census.


1 Gopal, K., “One party Dominance, Development and Trends”, CSDS, Party System and Election Studies, Bombay, Allied Publishers, 2007.

2 Kalelkar, K., Report of the Backward Classes Commission Vol. 1, Delhi, Government of India, and Vallabh, Pant G., Memorandum on the Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Delhi, Ministry of Home Affairs, 1995.

3 The Indian Administrative Service, an elite body recruited through competitive examinations, was comprised of 37.67% Brahmins, compared to 2.04% of OBC, according to the Mandal report (while the Brahmins represent less than 7% of the population). Generally, the OBCs represented only 12.5% of the central government (Report of the Backward Classes Commission, 1st Part, vol. 1 and 2, New Delhi, Government of India, 1980, p. 42).

4 The first three castes or Varnas (a, b, c) allegedly correspond to Aryan or Indo-European invaders.

5 According to the 1931 census, this is the last accurate figure available on the castes.

6 Unregistered religious minorities from the castes and the tribes make up the remaining 100.

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