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India: One Body Politic, One Shining Example for Other Democracies in the Region

It is axiomatic to say that the Indian electorate has a habit of springing surprises. Notably, when Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office — having won by a landslide in 1984 following his mother’s death — he had an interesting thing to say about Indian democracy.
Representative image: Voters in Jalaun. Photo: Election Commission of India

In 1980, soon after Indira Gandhi had been returned to power after some years in the political wilderness, I was travelling on a train from Delhi to Bhopal. I was with a Pashtoon gentleman. His name was Sayyid. Originally from the North-West Frontier, like many Pashtoon nationalists of the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or Frontier Gandhi-ilk, he had made India his home. Well known in Pashtoon Delhi circles, he was the president of the Pashtoon Jirga Association of India. 

Being something of an honorary Pashtoon myself, we were chatting in Pashto. The conversation turned to politics and the recent re-election of Indira Gandhi. She had spent some years in political wilderness, following the generally unpopular and draconian Emergency that she had imposed between 1975, and her electoral defeat in 1977. “Why did people vote Indira out of power in 1977?” I asked Sayyid. “She made big mistakes,” he explained. “So why did they vote her back just a few years later?” “We forgave her,” came Sayyid’s matter-of-fact reply. 

I have always remembered this conversation when thinking of Indian democracy. Sayyid talked as if he — a solitary Indian citizen — was representative of the whole Indian electorate, as if the entire body politic of India was able to speak with one voice, and make itself heard. The conversation has echoed in my mind following the just-concluded elections. 

It is axiomatic to say that the Indian electorate has a habit of springing surprises. People tend to be wary of making predictions in advance of elections. However, following the elections, when the Indian electorate has pulled the cat out of the bag in all sorts of unexpected ways, there is no shortage of those willing to explain — as Sayyid did in 1980 — why the electorate made the choice that it did. 

An ordinary citizen feels entitled to speak on behalf of the electorate, and rationalise the choice made by the electorate as if it was his own choice. They are able to do this due to one unique feature of Indian democracy. Of course, in the run-up to elections, everyone has his or her own opinions. Who knows how Sayyid voted in 1977, for instance. I have no idea. It is quite possible, due to his close ties with the Indian National Congress, that he voted for the party then also, out of pure loyalty. In fact, I can’t imagine him doing much else. However, when the electorate as a whole rejected Indira Gandhi and her Emergency, he swung his weight behind the electorate. When the electorate forgave her three years later, that also was his personal choice, as well as being the choice of the people of India. 

This feature has made Indian democracy an example — a shining light — for other countries in the region. I cannot imagine many in two other countries in the region with which I am personally familiar — Afghanistan and Pakistan — who are not looking at India with more than a tinge of jealousy right now, and wishing that they were able to hold such transparent elections, and make such mature choices as an electorate. 

John Butt in Deoband while he was studying there. Photo: Arranged by the author

In 1984, after I had graduated from a madrasa in India, I returned to my adopted home. That happened to be the Swat valley in north Pakistan — by chance the place of origin of Sayyid also. There was a caretaker in the house where I lived in the Swat valley. His name was Ghani. Mostly on his own in the house, especially when I was not there, he was an avid listener to the BBC World Service in Urdu. When Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv was voted out of office — having won by a landslide in 1984 following his mother’s death, Rajiv had this to say in 1989, . I am quoting Ghani here. He had heard the words on the radio, learned them off by heart and repeated them as an example of what democracy was all about:

“Agar chi dhandli hui hai, tab bhi mujhey qaum ka faisla qabul hai.”—“Even though there was some cheating, I accept the decision of the people.”

“That,” Ghani would say to me, “is democracy,” inferring in the process that they definitely didn’t have it in Pakistan, though he—and many others like him—aspired to it. 

Ghani’s words have been echoed by a former Pakistan ambassador to Washington, in the wake of the election just concluded. Writing on X, Husain Haqqani said:

Congratulations to the people of India for going through their 18th parliamentary election since 1947 and never having to deal with allegations of massive rigging or stolen mandates. That is commitment to democracy.”

John Butt went to revisit Deoband. Photo: Arranged by the author

Both Rajiv Gandhi and Sayyid — in their own ways — felt a sense of ownership towards the decision of the masses — far removed as it was from their own views. To my mind, this reflects the inherent inclusiveness of the Indian society. Before I left India in 2020, I took a trip to my pir khana — ashram or khanqah — in Thana Bhavan and alma mater in Deoband. I booked a taxi with Madan, at my hotel in Delhi: “Oh, you’re going on pilgrimage,” he immediately said with deference, on hearing the names Thana Bhavan and Deoband. “You could call it that,” I said, pleasantly surprised that Madan related to Thana Bhavan and Deoband as places of pilgrimage. 

Could it be that the 2024 elections mean that the Indian electorate want this inclusiveness to be reflected in their national politics, that they do not want one party to wield power in India, but prefer consensus politics?  Druv Singh from Varanasi, thought so. “One-party governments have the propensity to move towards dictatorship, something people sensed happening during Modi’s rule and so they voted for a coalition government,” Singh said, on the BBC live coverage of the election results.

What a challenge this will be, for someone who has wielded absolute power all his life — as chief minister in Gujarat and prime minister in the Centre — to whom government by consensus “does not come naturally”, in the words of one political analyst. The Indian electorate, in its wisdom, has given him a chance to prove that he can do it. 


John Butt is the author of A Talib’s Tale: the Life and Times of a Pashtoon Englishman, published by Penguin Random House (India). He is the only European to have graduated from Darul Uloom Deoband, where he studied in the 1970s and ‘80s with an ICCR scholarship. 

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