Courtesy Reuters

India's Election: Backing into the Future

Rarely has a country experienced so curious and kaleidoscopic a set of political changes as India since 1975. No one is very surprised when a developing nation turns authoritarian. The complexity of modernization itself seems sufficient explanation, if not justification. But a developing country whose authoritarian ruler reveals herself to be genuinely ambivalent about liberal and authoritarian strategies - who chooses to legitimize her position through an honest election and accepts her ensuing defeat with grace - deserves our attention.

When Indira Gandhi's Congress Party government was defeated in March by a loose coalition under the umbrella of the Janata Party, India's repudiation of an authoritarian regime was in stunning contrast to the ways in which similar regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece were changed. What calculations led to the election? What led to its extraordinary outcome? What does the reversal of authoritarian rule bode for the future, not only for the policies of the new government but also for the structure of the political system? And what, if anything, will remain of the innovation and repression of those two years that have become part of history?

II

Why the election? First, Indira Gandhi was extraordinarily sensitive to charges at home and abroad that in placing India under emergency rule she had betrayed democracy, the legacy left by Mahatma Gandhi and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. The suppression of dissent - particularly through the muzzling of the lively Indian press and detention of political opponents - and the promulgation of a body of laws legitimizing authoritarian rule gave her critics ample grounds for their case against her. She called for an election in part to give the lie to such allegations, to maintain the credibility of her claim to rule constitutionally and legally as well as democratically. She had taken care to maintain the form if not the spirit of the constitution, a tactic that had the great virtue of legitimizing her authority with the army, the police, and the civil service. The

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