Prof Alf Nilsen on Indian democracy and his new book

Posted on May 23, 2019

A recently launched book edited by Professor Alf Nilsen of the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Humanities offers an in-depth look at the forces that shaped democracy in India. As India’s six-week, seven-phase general election – the largest democratic exercise in the world – draws to its close, Prof Nilsen told Xolani Mathibela more about the book, titled Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations. 

XM: What did you aim to achieve with this publication about India’s democracy?

AN: The project was conceived in the context of India’s 70th year of independence, and the idea was to bring together a range of prominent voices from academica, civil society and the Indian public sphere to discuss the state of Indian democracy. The project adopted a fundamentally critical perspective by contrasting the resilience and stability of Indian democracy to its social deficits – evident in the persistence of poverty and the deepening of inequality – and the erosion of its constitutional foundation, which has happened under the regime of Narendra Modi and [his party] the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In doing so, we also explored what democracy might mean and look like in a more progressive and encompassing form than its current avatar.

XM: How many dominant political parties are there in India?

AN: The two major national parties are the BJP and the Indian National Congress. There are also several large political parties that are predominantly regional – precisely because of the enormous size of the country – such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in North India, the All India Trinamool Congress in Bengal and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in South India. The regional parties play very important roles, both in national and state-level electoral politics.

XM: Do India’s recent elections contain any parallels to South Africa’s democracy?

AN: There is much to be gained by thinking about democracy – what it is, what it is not and what it might be – across the two countries. Both South Africa and India are postcolonial countries in which democracy was born from long struggles, with promises of freedom and equality for all. But the extent to which democracy, in both countries, has delivered on those promises is limited: both South Africa and India inherited inequalities, and ascriptive hierarchies distribute life chances in profoundly unjust ways. This predicament is made even more acute by the fact that the growth processes that have recently been taking place in India and South Africa as middle-income BRICS countries further exacerbate these structural inequalities. The big question that both nations confront is how to respond in a progressive way to the fundamental contradiction of the co-existence of democracy and deep injustice.

XM: Is democracy alleviating caste-based inequality in India?

AN: Yes and no. For a long time after independence, Dalits [also known as “untouchables”] and other lower-caste groups were excluded from active and independent participation in India’s electoral democracy. Their votes were controlled by upper-caste groups who were often also the dominant landowning classes in India’s vast countryside. This began to change from the late 1970s onwards, as independent lower-caste parties became a force to be reckoned with. This has undoubtedly restored a sense of agency, dignity and power to Dalits and lower-caste groups. Yet the measures that have been implemented to improve the standard of living among these groups – mostly various forms of affirmative action policies – have had a relatively limited impact. Dalits and lower-caste groups are still overrepresented among the 780 million people who live on less than R44 a day in India. Indeed, the persistence of caste-based inequality in India, democracy notwithstanding, is not at all dissimilar to the persistence of racial inequalities in post-apartheid South Africa.


- Author Xolani Mathibela

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