Too big for democracy?

May 22, 1991

Since India gained its independence shortly after World War II, three of its four major leaders have fallen at the hands of assassins. First there was Mohandas K. Gandhi, killed by a fanatical fellow Hindu; then in 1984 Indira Gandhi, slain by extremists who infiltrated her own bodyguard; and now Rajiv Gandhi, killed yesterday by parties unknown but almost certainly from one of the warring factions of that troubled country.

India is touted as the 'world's most populous democracy,' but against its background of political violence, the question must be asked: Is India simply too large to govern as a democracy? Is it not like trying to govern the whole world democratically?

The premise of democracy is that everyone is allowed to debate and to vote, but once the votes are counted, the result is accepted -- at least until the next election. But it may well be that a country as large and diverse as India, with its 850 million inhabitants divided into hundreds of religious and ethnic subgroups, not to speak of a vast economically deprived class, democratic consensus is simply unattainable. No matter what the result, there will always be those ready to turn to violence.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassination revives the question, is India too big to govern democratically as a single nation? The record of violence increasingly suggests that the answer is yes.

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