‘Indian election could provide important lessons for SA democracy’ – UP professor at launch of book on Indian democracy

Posted on May 15, 2019

The outcome of India’s ongoing six-week election (set to end on 23 May) could provide interesting markers for the way in which South Africa’s democracy might progress and mature, a University of Pretoria (UP) Professor of Sociology said at the launch of a new book that traces the history of India’s democracy.

“The elections in India and South Africa share a number of fundamental similarities,” Alf Nilsen, Professor of Sociology in UP’s Humanities Faculty, said at the launch of ‘Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations’ at UP’s Hatfield Campus.

Prof Nilsen, who is the book’s editor and co-author, added that, “Both South African and Indian elections take place in middle-income countries in the global South, in countries where economic growth fails to impact positively on the lives of the majority of citizens through job creation and expanded welfare, and in which growth is grossly unequal. In India, the top 10% control 56% of all income; in SA the top 10% control two-thirds of all income.”

Prof Nilsen said the income inequality prevalent in both countries raises a number of important questions, including at least one burning question: “How do the excluded and dispossessed channel their frustrated hopes and accumulated anger? South Africa should note that the last five years of conservative Hindu nationalist rule in India shows clearly that the outcome of such uneven development can be increased support for authoritarian populism and majoritarian nationalism.”   

In his opening remarks at the launch, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of UP’s Faculty of Humanities, said, “This is a timely publication that calls into question many presumptions about Indian democracy, notably ‘What is the meaning of democracy?’ Nilsen’s volume suggests that Indian democracy is far from a finished project. In fact, it is complex, contested, and requiring much repair and attention. However, despite the challenges, Indian democracy remains resilient and enduring. This is a current and contemporary set of perspectives by scholars, activists and journalists that has a wide public appeal.”

India’s six-week, seven-phase general election – the largest democratic exercise in the world – started on 11 April, with polling set to end on 19 May, and results expected on 23 May.  The book says five years of rule by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has eroded the constitutional backbone of Indian democracy and brought majoritarian violence to the very centre of Indian life.

The book’s authors say this makes this an election in which India decides whether its future will be one of authoritarianism and exclusion or democracy, civility, and social justice. 

The publication is co-authored by a number of scholars and experts on Indian democracy, and looks into issues such as the persistence of caste-based discrimination, social injustice, and gender violence in India.

‘Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations’ provides vital background and context to this decisive moment in Indian and global history by investigating the origins, trajectories, and contestations that shape the largest democracy in the world.

- Author Department of University Relations

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