Madhav Khosla is a superstar academic in the making with a formidable CV: “Madhav Khosla is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, the Ambedkar Visiting Associate Professor of Law at Columbia University, and a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He works across a range of themes in public law and political theory…. Khosla studied political theory at Harvard University, where his dissertation was awarded the Edward M. Chase Prize for “the best dissertation on a subject relating to the promotion of world peace”, and law at Yale Law School and the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. His work has been cited by courts in India and Pakistan.” (source:

Our interest in Mr Khosla arises from reading an award-winning book he published a couple of years ago titled “India’s Founding Moment”. This book is worth reading for three reasons.

Firstly, historically Western constitutional experts have scorned India’s constitution because 250 out of its 395 Articles were taken word for word from the Government of India Act passed in 1935. Khosla explains that such scorn is misplaced because (quoting from Ms Kalantry & Ms Dev’s review): “Khosla counters the narrative that India’s founding moment was historically insignificant and instead argues that it was a “paradigmatic democratic experience of the twentieth century”. Instead of using the imperial ideology of political absolutism that the British had offered, Khosla argues that India’s leaders chose to create a “self-sustaining democratic politics” through political education.…

He calls for an inquiry into the question of how and why democracy came to be chosen for India rather than focusing on the functioning of Indian democracy. He spends significant time analyzing B.R. Ambedkar’s work. For example, when Khosla places emphasis on the “immediate” granting of universal suffrage. That was seen as an indispensable feature of Indian democracy to Ambedkar who rejected western notions of “gradual extension” of suffrage and saw limiting suffrage “on account of illiteracy” as a “kind of perversity”. It seemed unfair that people who were first denied an education were later denied suffrage because they were illiterate.

Khosla sees the choice of democracy for India as an intentional one…He engages in a study of the plan that emerged for India’s founding moment by examining three themes – codification (Chapter 1), centralization (Chapter 2), representation (Chapter 3). He argues that these themes were fundamental to the architecture of Indian democracy and the constitutional project. They were to make democratization possible by providing the mechanisms by which authority was to be sustained. These themes aimed to breakdown prevailing power structures and establish a collective political form that would be suitable to democratic politics.”

Secondly, the book will help the reader understand the racist undertones around the intellectual discourse which still pervades Western notions of Indian independence. Ashutosh Varshney writes: “G. W. F. Hegel, who thought that India was doomed to be a despotic polity and speculated that Indians lived according to age-old caste rules rather than as autonomous agents capable of making conscious choices. In such a society, made up of citizens supposedly devoid of agency, the older order—hierarchical, oppressive, and despotic—would continue ad infinitum, and a modern political order breaking from tradition was virtually impossible.

Approximately half a century later, John Stuart Mill considered India through the lens of colonialism. Mill distinguished between colonies that were “of similar civilization to the ruling country, capable and ripe for representative government, such as British possessions in America and Australia” and other colonies “like India (that) are . . . at a great distance” from the British civilization. These polities, so different from that of their colonists, only allowed for “a choice of despotisms.” Following this interpretation, British tutelage in the form of colonization was India’s best option. In contrast, the advanced European civilizations and their cousins—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and, earlier, the United States—could have democratic rule owing to their higher capability for rational conduct.

Khosla’s book largely seeks to remedy political philosophy’s failed portrayal of India. In doing so, the book presents an ambitious and novel claim:

The historical conditions of India’s creation should encourage us to see it as the paradigmatic democratic experience of the twentieth century, in much the same way that Tocqueville had seen the United States as the model nineteenth-century democracy.”

The third reason for reading this book is to understand why development i.e. literacy, health, economic growth, etc follows democracy [rather than these good things being preceded by democracy]. Mr Varshney says that Mr Khosla’s book does a fine job of explaining why this sequencing is important: “Who, after all, thinks of universal franchise when the literacy rate (at the end of British rule) was a mere 17 percent (Mill thought literacy had to be the foundation of franchise), when more than 60 percent of the country was below the poverty line (Mill was unconvinced that the poor should have the right to vote), and when more than twenty languages were spoken in the country (Mill thought that all citizens must speak the same language if democracy was to function)? At independence in 1947, India possessed each of these disqualifying conditions. But India’s early leaders did not view these as insurmountable obstacles. Instead they decided that voting rights would not be based on literacy, income, property, or gender. Each citizen, however deprived, could be assumed to know their own interests as well as the privileged knew theirs. And, respecting India’s linguistic diversity, citizen education was made multilingual to generate a public sphere diverse in language.

The founders had confidence in these historically unprecedented interventions. At the time of independence, as Khosla strikingly puts it, India’s political leadership held a Hobbesian view of politics, and “at the heart of the Hobbesian project was the independence of politics.” The notion of necessary democratic preconditions—literacy, income, language—implied that “human behavior was not the consequence of politics, but instead its cause … a scenario that Thomas Hobbes would have regarded as placing the cart before the horse.” Rather than understanding social conditions as a creator of politics, India’s democratic project was based on the notion that politics could change adverse social and economic conditions—that “the practice of democracy would create democratic citizens.” If politics was supreme, the improbable could be achieved.” [Underlining is ours]

Many of us see our political leaders as being intellectual slaves to whatever thinking is fashionable in the West. India’s founding fathers broke free of the then prevalent thought to give us universal adult suffrage. Ironically, 70 years on, leading economists such as Daron Acemoglu have shown that universal adult suffrage is necessary for creating conditions for inclusive economic development.

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