Arab Spring, Indian Summer?
For sheer drama, the Arab Spring is a hard act to follow. But as an indicator of democracy's long-term prospects in the developing world, the coming Indian Summer will be just as profound.
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A detailed proposal to overhaul the Land Acquisition Act has been issued by the National Advisory Council, a government think tank chaired by Sonia Gandhi. Widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, she is president of the ruling party and the current prime minister's de facto boss. The proposed legislation would vastly increase compensation to landowners and for the first time provide statutory relief to nonlandowners whose livelihoods are nevertheless adversely affected. It would also impose a higher public-purpose standard for compulsory land acquisition and set community-resettlement norms.Skip to next paragraph
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Momentum behind the activists
The fate of these two regime-changing reforms is uncertain, but more promising than cynics might imagine. The prime movers of both the Jan Lokpal ombudsman and land acquisition bills are the same activists who in 2005 drove passage of India's Right to Information Act, which superseded the Official Secrets Act of 1923.
Activists have had to prod the various branches of government to dismantle the colonial state. In 2009, in response to public-interest litigation, the Supreme Court struck down anti-gay-rights provisions of the Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860. In 2001, Parliament amended the Indian Divorce Act of 1869 to grant Christian women – each major religion operates under its own "personal law" – the same divorce rights as men.
To advance the agenda of accountable, rights-based governance, several key activists have embedded themselves within the state through appointments to official oversight and policy-guidance bodies. This core of dedicated reformers has pioneered a new model for channeling people's perspectives directly to the heart of policymaking.
India's vibrant social movements have seized on the dissonance between modern expectations of freedom and the provisions of colonial laws to advance the seemingly never-ending process of making subjects into citizens. Indians are consolidating democracy, making it durable by making it their own – a feat that people in the Middle East will soon realize is even trickier than unseating autocrats.
Rob Jenkins, professor of political science at Hunter College and associate director at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, City University of New York, is researching how politics influences the realization of rights in India.