186 Studies in Indian Politics 10(2)
Report 2022, India is among the most unequal countries in the world. The Democracy Index Report of
the Economic Intelligence Unit released in 2021 shows a decline in India’s ranking amidst ‘democratic
backsliding’ and violation of civil liberties, making it a ‘flawed democracy’. While the purpose of this
article is not to trace the trajectory of democracy in India, the narratives of state and democracy interlace.
They can be extricated from one another at the peril of unravelling the story itself. The institutionalization
of public power in the state and its differentiation and dispersal across institutions is anchored in
questions of legitimate power. The paradox of democracy as the appraisive political concept par
excellence (Gallie, 1955–1957, p. 184) to evaluate the commitment of states to democratize the spread
of power and the inherent tendency in the state to corrode democracy through complex networks of
dominant and persuasive power has a chequered history in India.
In this article, I argue that the long durée narrative of the state in independent India shows an
accumulation of incremental and aggregate power relations arrayed in and through political institutions
inhabiting a field of power. These relationships, I argue, are protean, exhibiting conflicts and
contestations among institutions that compete for space within the domain of the state, which lead to
the augmentation of state power but also, paradoxically, to its dilution by making its spread democratic.
The ‘ebbs’ and ‘flows’ in power are visible in the state-space represented by institutional arrangements,
the changing patterns of relationship among institutions and the ‘structures of resources that create
capabilities for acting’ (March & Olsen, 2006, p. 3). While institutions perform the function of
legitimation for the state, they also embody the crisis that may beset the state reflecting the dissonance
between its moral–political goals of bringing about socio-economic transformation and its ability to
achieve them through ‘state-bureaucratic’ practices. Indeed, institutions become conduits for
entrenchment of political regimes that make for specific kinds of states. While making these arguments,
the article addresses questions pertaining to the relationship between institutional presence, state-
space and political regimes, such as what are the different ways in which institutions are ‘present’ in
the state-space while navigating contestations over power? What constitutes ‘crises’ of institutions,
and whether in riding over them, the state endures or weakens? What about democracy then, and how
does it battle the ‘self-destructive’ tendencies (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018) that institutional crises may
bring in their wake? The article focuses on the state-space inhabited by Parliament and the Supreme
Court and institutions such as the Election Commission of India (ECI) which enables regime change,
and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which has sometimes ‘performed’ its mandate
and at other times pleaded helplessness before the constraints that were inscribed in its ‘design’.
This article explores the undulating and often jagged topography of relationships between
institutions, political regimes and state power in three sections. The first section presents the
constitutional state as the setting for ‘durable democracy’. It opens for scrutiny the ‘state-idea’ as a
mask over political practice (Abrams, 1988) by inserting the notion of state as limited by rule of law
and simultaneously empowered as an ‘instrument’ for carrying out development and installing an
equal society. The second section examines how institutional crises inform the state-in-process.
Focusing on the emergency, it shows how in specific sites of contestation over power, institutions
assume ‘intentionality’ of the state to produce state-effects (Mitchell, 1991). The third section traces
the uneven trajectories of institutional presence in the ensuing period, to show how the marginalization
of institutions such as Parliament and the ambivalence of the judiciary in articulating the principles
underlying the constitutional consensus have contributed to the displacement of the constitutional
state. The dominative presence of the executive, corrosion of deliberative spaces into sites of
adversarial combat, the populist appeal of the ‘leader’ drawing upon communitarian emotions, and the
diminution of channels of democratic expression and mechanisms of democratic decision-making, have
paved the way for a majoritarian state.