The blooming democracy of India. Scholars discuss why this British import flourishes

The side of India that's often unknown to Americans is ``the modern, living face of India,'' as opposed to the romanticized Gunga Din-Taj Mahal image. And an important feature of that living face is the ``democratic image,'' the country's building of free political institutions over the past 38 years. Those observations come from Niranjan Desai, cultural attach'e at the Indian Embassy in Washington. He was among the participants at a conference this summer at Dartmouth College that brought together some of the top India scholars in the United States, two former US ambassadors to India, and some Indian diplomats to discuss the future of US-India relations.

As conference organizer Howard Erdman of Dartmouth's department of government pointed out, the event gave India specialists like himself a chance to emerge from their ``relative obscurity.'' It also gave lay people -- in this instance an enthusiastic delegation from Dartmouth's summer alumni program -- a chance to gain some insight into a country that has bobbed in and out of headlines (and movie theaters) regularly over the past year.

Since much of today's news about India is of assassination and ethnic strife, Mr. Desai's observation about Americans' slight understanding of how and why democracy functions in India is to the point. Is that sprawling democracy -- the world's largest -- teetering on the edge, or is there reason to believe it will persist?

``In a degree, democracy in India is a Western import,'' notes Robert Goheen, a former US ambassador to India and past president of Princeton University. But as a system, he adds, it is admirably suited to ``ventilating'' all the differences of the Indian people. Dr. Goheen, who was born in India to missionary parents, concludes that ``Indian democracy functions extraordinarily well,'' given the enormous size and diversity of the country.

While India's major governmental structures -- the parliamentary system and the system of justice -- are a legacy of British colonial rule, grass-roots democracy goes back many centuries, according to other Dartmouth participants.

``In India, there has been a very long tradition of elected officials'' at the local level, says P. S. Sahai, commerce attach'e at the Indian Embassy in Washington. For generations, he explained, village councils and leaders have been popularly chosen.

What this means, according to Mr. Sahai, is that while Indian villagers -- the rural population that makes up nearly 80 percent of the country's 700 million inhabitants -- may be ``uneducated in letters, they can still have a very shrewd political mind.''

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, holds that the pattern of Indian elections in recent years indicates a strong streak of independence among voters there. For example, note the ``punishing'' of Mrs. Gandhi and her son Sanjay in the 1977 election, the ``national unity'' vote for Rajiv Gandhi last December, and the parliamentary election of last March, when many regions swung away from Gandhi and the Congress Party. ``One is very impressed with the fact t hat they make real decisions with these elections,'' says Dr. Rudolph.

While widespread literacy is often considered crucial to democracy, rural folk in India, vast numbers of whom are illiterate, ``don't feel any obstacle to their [political] participation,'' Rudolph observes. ``They're very literate in terms of the needs of their economic or social group,'' in her opinion.

Rudolph and her husband, Lloyd, a fellow University of Chicago political scientist, regularly travel to India to study its political processes. ``We've seen village leaders hassle politicians -- bring to their attention unfulfilled promises,'' she recalls (See feature on the Rudolphs beginning on Page 29).

But there are dark sides to the Indian democratic experiment, too. Indira Gandhi's 1975 declaration of ``emergency'' suspended political rights and sanctioned the jailing of many of her opponents. It was a time when the use of force overwhelmed the peaceful political processes urged by the patriarchs of an independent India, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Mrs. Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru.

At that time, say the Rudolphs, some of their colleagues were quick to proclaim that ``the real India has finally reemerged.''

But in fact, say the University of Chicago scholars, the common people rejected Mrs. Gandhi's claim to ``benign authoritarianism.'' Indians had been used to having a means of voicing grievances, and ``there was a popular sense that channels had been closed that they'd become accustomed to using,'' says Lloyd Rudolph.

Nobody at the Dartmouth gathering -- described as representing the academic side of the 18-month-long ``Festival of India and the United States'' that began last June -- played down the often gargantuan challenges to democracy in India posed by the country's ethnic fissures and still-pervasive poverty.

But the consensus of those interviewed was that the system has roots there -- that, as Susan Rudolph put it, most Indians, whether urban businessmen or farmers in the countryside, have a ``vested interest'' in democracy's continuance. See related stories on Page 29

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