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“Much as it is fashionable, and indeed, justifiable to criticise the British Raj for a lot of horrible things that happened to India in about two centuries of colonial rule, perhaps it might well be a good time for us to thank them for the parliamentary system of democracy,” writes  Madhavan Narayanan 

It is tempting to compare India and the United Kingdom, with both countries holding keenly watched general elections with just over a month separating them. How different and similar are they? Or more importantly, are there any lessons for India to learn in the way its system functions after the Labour Party landslide that threw Indian-origin Conservative leader Rishi Sunak out as prime minister? 

Much as it is fashionable, and indeed, justifiable to criticise the British Raj for a lot of horrible things that happened to India in about two centuries of colonial rule, perhaps it might well be a good time for us to thank them for the parliamentary system of democracy. That is not what the British came here for or intended to bequeath to India, but it was wise of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and a host of founding fathers to take the best out of the country of their colonial masters. Among them is parliamentary democracy, which, with all its warts, showed up in glorious light last weekend in Britain, and a month earlier, in India. 

Reading an electoral mandate is a fine art for many parliamentary democracy watchers, which unlike the American-style presidential method chooses one big leader to govern. Under strongman Narendra Modi, India almost became presidentialised, before the coalition mandate this year showed us that India’s parliamentary system is alive, even if it is not kicking as some would like it to. 

For the opposition INDIA grouping in New Delhi led by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the ruling BJP’s cup is now half-empty rather than half-full in the 543-member Lok Sabha. In the UK, Keir Starmer is the prime minister after a Labour Party landslide got him 412 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, while the Conservatives have their worst seat count at 122. But then, psephologists keenly point to Labour getting 63% of seats with only 34% of national votes, while Conservatives secured 24% of the votes cast but only 19% of the seats. 

Be it Britain or India, like a closely fought one-day cricket match, moral victories and ideological brownie points can be thrashed out in endless discussions for which only India’s Bengalis have the perfect word: Adda! 

Beyond all this is the hard fact that a parliamentary system allows for vagaries that often conceal a hidden message: that a multi-party democracy with geographically apportioned constituencies has a fine knack of blending national, international, and local factors in a manner that keeps a steady political balance over a long period of time, allowing for a mix of continuity and change in a stable measure. You could add the British proved with their “Brexit” out of the European Union that the best-laid plans for political stability can come apart at the seams — much like India, whose 19-month Emergency rule from June 1975 showed the shortcomings of a democratic system that can get shaky now and then. 

However, what I admired as an Indian watching the UK results is the manner the British seem to handle the transfer of power, how election results are announced and shared, and how new governments take over. 

First up, we could see Sir Keir Starmer congratulating Sunak for his “dedication and hard work”. He went out of his way to mention his predecessor as the UK’s first British Asian PM. That showed a team spirit as well as a salute to multiculturalism, something that the UK has discovered recently thanks to a swell of immigrants resulting from imperial rule than a homegrown idea that India has been more accustomed to over the centuries. But it is difficult to imagine Modi mentioning a rival leader in a positive light by citing her community or origin. 

A web search reveals that outgoing prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee congratulated his successor Manmohan Singh by telephone in 2004 (Twitter/X was not born yet) and in turn, Dr. Singh greeted Modi in 2014 by phone and his office announced that in a tweet. However, Modi only a month before his first election, was mocking Dr Singh in a Facebook post for citing in a press conference the number of his speeches made during his 10-year reign. Alas, India has not seen ANY press conference by Modi in his decade-long rule. It took nine long years for Modi to praise Dr. Singh in a parliament speech. A lot of bitterness has crept into Indian politics. Old phone calls and this month’s British elections are a grim reminder that things should be less grim in democratic transfers of power. 

The UK also got its exit polls right this year, unlike India, where a clutch of pollsters ended up with egg on their faces — or tomatoes, if you want an indigenous, vegetarian alternative. Could it be that media companies considered close to the ruling party and running their own exit polls as sideshows for television rating points fared the worst because they put their brands and bets over the real story? We have some stuff for them to ponder over here. 

It was a sad sight to see a former prime minister (Liz Truss) lose her so-called strong seat, but there is plenty to admire in the democratic way it all happened. There she stood in a corner of the constituency podium as her defeat was announced. The fact that she stood as a humble MP seeking re-election even after her own Conservative party had pushed up an ethnic Asian to be the PM was a sight to behold. Can we visualise a former Indian PM continuing as just an MP under a new leader while her party is still in power? We are yet to see that day. 

Then, we had the magnificent spectacle of outgoing Chancellor the Exchequer (finance minister) Jeremy Hunt leaving his official residence at 11, Downing Street even as results were pouring in, accompanied by his Chinese-born wife Lucia Guo, their children and the family dog. It would be nice to see Indian ministers vacating their Lutyens’ zone homes at the sound of defeat, no? 

One also saw the Labour Party announcing its incoming cabinet ministers before the results day was over With its own “shadow cabinet” system, Britain’s political culture fixes portfolio-based accountability much before elections, a far cry from India’s wait-and-watch culture of appointing and swearing in ministers (with some sulking on the side).

As state-funded BBC dissected the ups and downs of the poll verdict, it was clear that government-funded media need not behave like a ruling party’s extension. 

Last but not least, there was the setback suffered by the Scottish National Party, which targeted 29 seats, down from the 48 it won in 2019 — but was reduced to 9 in the Labour landslide. That reminded us of how higher-than-50 per cent turnouts in three vital parliamentary constituencies in India’s Kashmir valley seemed a sea change from separatist-fuelled voting boycotts. 

The similarity: Both in the UK and the Union of India, there has been an electoral wave against separatism. The difference: in India, regional nationalists are often slammed as anti-national, and their dissenting views are not taken as part of a democratic dialogue in which things can be fixed. 

As results rolled in on Friday in the UK, India saw a much-delayed swearing-in of pro-Khalistan preacher Amritpal Singh and jailed Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdul Rashid as members of the Lok Sabha. If people linked in the past to separatism or regional nationalism can swear by a common constitution, what is the problem?  

Perhaps there are lessons for India in how enmities and rivalries can be turned into disagreements and then reconciliation. 

Does India, then, have lessons for British democracy? I would say a big yes, but that would be another story. Hint: Technology! 


Madhavan Narayanan

Madhavan Narayanan is senior editor, writer and columnist with more than 30 years of experience, having worked for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard


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