Research Seminar review: Dr. Taylor Sherman’s ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s-60s India’

Written by Carissa Chew


‘It is not only in the totalitarian countries that the ‘rape of the masses’ happens. The basic difference is that in a democracy there is a competition between the violators while there is no competition in totalitarianism.’ (Jayaprakash Narayan, ‘A Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity’, 1959).

It is this critique of Indian democracy, expressed by political activist Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) in the 1950s and 1960s, which is the subject of Dr. Taylor C. Sherman’s latest research. In her discussion of JP’s call for the abolition of democracy in India, Sherman examines more broadly the origins and development of the thoughtful and eminent – although frequently overlooked – criticism of Nehruvian parliamentary democracy that arose within five years of India’s first post-independence elections. Sherman’s study demands a revision of the historiographical consensus that Jawaharlal Nehru’s democratic regime was a success until it was compromised in the 1970s, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.

On Monday 29 January 2018, Dr. Sherman, from LSE’s department of International History, shared her research into the debates surrounding anti-democratic thought in Nehru’s India, in a talk that was titled ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s-60s India’. This research seminar was part of a colloquium that was organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History.

Sherman began by identifying the limitations of existing studies on Nehruvian democracy, the majority of which have deemed it a ‘success’. Scholars on the subject, in Sherman’s opinion, have been either too ‘long-term’ or too ‘short-term’ in their approach. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the question of how Indians themselves viewed democracy. In an attempt to address this gap in the historiography, Sherman presented a detailed study of political activist JP’s views, with a particular focus on his belief that elections were not a prerequisite for democracy.

Born in 1902, JP led an active but inconsistent political life until his death in 1979. In his early political career, JP identified as a Marxist and joined the Indian National Congress in 1929. He played a prominent role as an independence activist, gaining particular recognition in the Quit India campaign. Soon after independence, however, in 1948, JP joined a group of Congress Socialists who broke away from the Congress Party. This group went on to form the Praja Socialist Party, which constituted the main political opposition to Congress in the early years of independence.

In 1954, JP announced his abandonment of party politics, and instead concentrated his efforts on village work and the land-redistribution scheme known as the Bhoodan movement. This campaign, led by Vinoba Bhave, emerged in the 1950s as an attempt to combat rural poverty in India. Bhoodan activists encouraged wealthy landowning families to gift them some of their lands, which they would then redistribute to the landless poor (although with limited success).

From the late 1950s through to the 1970s, JP’s attention returned to political matters; but his time working with Bhave resulted in a change in his political stance. JP had initially supported the multi-party system and had called for a strong, but singular, opposition. By the late 1950s, however, JP had come to view parliamentary democracy as a deeply flawed system that needed replacing. JP pondered whether it was a mistake to always imagine that in a democracy there must always be a ruling party and an opposition. Until a suitable alternative could be decided, however, JP wished democracy its success and urged people to continue casting their ballots; in JP’s view, a one-party system would be a far worse tragedy for India.

In the 1970s, JP re-emerged as a prominent critic of Indira Gandhi’s regime. Sherman identifies that JP is intellectually and politically difficult to pigeonhole, remarking that his political life played out in a zigzagged path. It is the multi-part critique of democracy, which he most virulently expressed in the years 1957-61, however, upon which Sherman’s research focuses. In the next part of her talk, Sherman elucidated JP’s political trajectory.

JP’s first contention was that, because of the first-past-the-post system, parliamentary democracy did not equate to the rule of the majority. After all, in the election of 1951, although Congress only won 45 percent of the votes, it formed every single government after 1952. There was a discrepancy between the number of votes received and the number of seats won. JP proposed that people would lose faith in a system that did not reflect their views. Secondly, people did not always vote based on a rational balancing of arguments. Powerful parties, who controlled the media, manipulated elections. Thus, elections represent the interests of the forces that fund the parties – not the people. In JP’s view, therefore, Nehruvian democracy was not taking the country in the right direction. A party’s desire to gain votes inevitably led to lies and demagoguery. The third issue, therefore, was the insidious influence of caste upon the voter. All political parties played lip service to the idea that caste differences should be eradicated and exploited this motif by identifying and mapping out castes who they could win support from.

In JP’s opinion, swaraj (self-rule) meant that the people should actually be governing the country themselves, not merely voting for representatives once every five years. Furthermore, JP proposed that democracy was a foreign system that Indian people ultimately did not and could not understand, drawing upon anecdotal evidence to support this claim. In the 1951 election, when ballots were cast using the symbols of each political party, JP explains that Indians who had been encouraged to vote for the tree (Indian Socialist Party), were later spotted attempting to climb trees and cast their ballots from the treetops. In a letter to Nehru, JP concluded that the present political system had already proved a failure.

Sherman argued that JP is an important political figure because he was not merely an outlier. In fact, after the 1957 elections, there was a lot of concern among intellectuals and politicians about the quality of political leadership; the influence of caste; the function of political parties in elections; the expanding role of money and corruption; and the use of Congress dominance to override court decisions through constitutional amendments. Sherman made clear that JP did not start this debate over the ‘success’ of Indian democracy, he entered one that was already going on. There already existed widespread concerns over the motives of the men who stood for power, and questions of whether Indian people had attained a political consciousness yet. Sherman concluded that these concerns were shared by a variety of people, but JP, with his condemnation of parliamentary democracy as a failure, was the most extreme voice among them.

JP’s frequent correspondence with Nehru in this period is also a point of interest. In a letter addressed to JP, Nehru encouraged him to suggest an alternative to parliamentary democracy. In response, JP produced a pamphlet in which he envisioned a communitarian organisation that was not centred on voting. Drawing upon ancient Indian history, JP proposed that elections were alien to indigenous culture and thus counter-productive to contemporary Indian society. For JP, a primary village community would achieve social and economic order through the pooling of economic goods. He identified a need to rebuild communities and encourage social integration, and his vision ultimately rested on a belief in the individual’s willingness to swap their own self-interests for the interests of the greater good. JP believed that man needed to be put in touch with man, so that they may live together in meaningful relationships. Essentially, he envisioned a recreation of the human community.

In summary, Sherman’s research demonstrates that this period in Indian history, in which Nehru is typically viewed as the personification of a static and stable parliamentary democracy, was, in fact, a period of political experimentation. If we look at the views of Indians themselves throughout the 1950s and 1960s, we see that they were not content with the political structures they had inherited. There was an ongoing discussion regarding the suitability of the Western model of parliamentary democracy for independent India, and by recognising this, we are forced to question the orthodox narrative of Nehru’s democratic ‘success’.

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