It was September 1982. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on a state visit to the Soviet Union. During her visit, talks were held in the Kremlin between the Indian and Soviet delegation, helmed by Indira Gandhi and Leonid Brezhnev, then the Soviet supremo and General Secretary of the Communist Party. During the talks — which cover both internal and external issues — Mrs Gandhi referred to the growing insurgency in Punjab as a cause of concern. While she spoke, Brezhnev — in poor health and advanced years — had dozed off. His foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, seated next to him, nudged him awake. Brezhnev then whispered to Gromyko (loud enough for our Russian interpreter to take notes): “What is she talking about? I can’t understand a word of what she is saying.” Gromyko then explained briefly in hushed tones that the Indian PM was talking about the state of Punjab where Pakistan sponsored insurgency for a separate Khalistan state was a worrying development.
Brezhnev, now awake, intervened, and with an expansive wave of his hand said: “Your Excellency, I am sorry to interrupt you, but how can you allow such things to happen? Look at the Soviet Union. Since 1917 we have never let such forces rise, and have remained a united country.” Brezhnev died a few weeks later, in November 1982. Less than a decade later, in 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate countries. On the other hand, Punjab remains very much a part of the democratic framework of India. In the last Assembly elections held in 2022, voter turnout was close to a record 70 per cent.
The reason for these entirely different outcomes is simply one word: democracy. India had it. The Soviet Union did not. I have been a personal witness, as undersecretary on the Soviet desk in the ministry of external affairs, and later in our embassy in Moscow, to the disintegration of the former USSR. My experience is that when long established totalitarian states tinker with the system, the inflexible autocracy is unable to control the consequences. President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was President of the USSR from 1985 to 1991, was — not wrongly — reform minded. He tried to introduce glasnost (openness and greater transparency) and perestroika (reconstruction) within the tightly controlled undemocratic stranglehold of the Soviet Communist Party. Tinkering with an inelastic system, unused to the suppleness of a democracy, led to developments that careened out of control. The great Soviet empire fragmented, unable to absorb and deal with changes that were so contrary to the rigid systemic framework it had hitherto adopted.
History carries important lessons that we can forget only at our own peril. Democracy is by no means the most perfect system, but it is still better than all the others because it provides, to the pressure cooker of aspiration, diversity, and discontent, a safety valve to prevent an explosion.
These days, comparisons between the relative strengths of India and China are prolific. There is no doubt that China is, on conventional parameters — GDP, per capita income, infrastructure, economic productivity, and defence — far ahead of India. But, like the Soviet Union — and perhaps current day Russia too — it lacks one key factor: democracy. I believe that sooner rather than later, China will face the same systemic crisis that led to the convulsion within the USSR. The autocratic hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have to dilute some degree of its rigidity to accommodate growing restlessness within the Chinese people, as was most recently witnessed during the spontaneous protests against the zero Covid policy. But the moment, the system tries to loosen its undemocratic grip, it could unleash long suppressed grievances creating internal upheavals which it has no experience to handle, and could seriously destabilise the country — at least in the short to mid-term.
The internal problems China is facing today is precisely the consequence of the absence of democracy. The unilateral diktat of the CCP for a one child policy, has bequeathed it with a demographic time bomb, with an aging and shrinking workforce, where every Chinese worker has to pay for the cost of two retirees. Its largely state-run enterprises are good at volumes, but hardly incubate entrepreneurship and the innovative spirit. The country’s GDP growth in 2007 was 14.2 per cent annually; in 2022 it was three per cent. If the inelastic state controlled economy is unable to meet the rising expectations of citizens, the ensuing unrest, without the ventilation that democracy gives, could seriously destabilise the country — at least in the short to medium term.
India’s strength is its democracy, however blemished it may be. Economic growth may be slower due to the cacophony of democracy, but it has a more enduring and institutional basis. In fact, for democracies — as against totalitarian systems — the reverse logic is true. When people have been used for over seven decades to free democratic elections, a vibrant Opposition, freedom of speech, expression and dissent, an independent judiciary, a free media, relatively autonomous institutions, and apolitical bureaucrats, any attempt to stifle such safeguards can lead to unforeseen consequences. Diversities will become brittle, endemic instability will ensue, discontents will turn into revolts, economic productivity will suffer, and the unity of the country itself may come under threat. The genie of democracy once out of the bottle, and internalised in the political genes of the common person, cannot be put back again.
Our founding fathers, and the makers of our Constitution, knew that the very provisions they have provided to safeguard individual freedoms and democracy can be misused. But they had faith in the wisdom of the people of India, and that wisdom — and the freedoms to express and protect it — can only be challenged at peril to the nation itself. Democratically elected governments in general — and the ruling dispensation now in India — must bear this in mind.
The writer is an author, diplomat and former member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)