Waiting for the People: Colonialism and the Idea of Democracy in India



In the course of the expansion of European imperialism and anticolonial resistance through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, democracy emerged as the undisputed normative ideal on a global scale. The ideal of democracy had been the professed goal of the anticolonial project since the late nineteenth century, while the developmental discourses of imperial legitimation also relied on the language of democracy. Against this backdrop, anticolonial political thinkers took it upon themselves to not just reclaim the sovereignty denied to the colonized but also to address the theoretical assumptions that rendered democracy compatible with empire. Focusing on colonial India, this dissertation offers a new interpretation of the anticolonial democratic project. In so doing, it also asks: what exactly happened to the idea of democracy when it went global?

The dissertation contends that the discourse of popular sovereignty is central to understanding the global career of democracy. The political articulation of the developmental turn in nineteenth-century European thought crucially hinged on the figure of the people. The dissertation demonstrates that the two seemingly separate historical developments—the rise of popular sovereignty in Europe and imperial rule in Asia and Africa— combined to establish a novel defense of colonialism in the nineteenth century. The ideals of sovereign peoplehood—one, undivided, and “fit” for political participation—came to facilitate a “democratic” justification of colonialism.

The imperial denial of Indian self-rule on the ground of its popular backwardness led anticolonial thinkers to repeatedly ask: what narratives of historical development are built into modern theories of democracy and what role do they play in practices of self-rule? I trace how a number of anticolonial thinkers pluralized (B.N. Seal, R.K. Mukerjee), rejected (M.K. Gandhi), and critically appropriated (Dadabhai Naoroji, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar) the developmental narratives constitutive of modern democracy. The effort to disentangle modern democracy from its deep-seated developmental and progressive assumptions, I argue, defined the anticolonial democratic project. Yet it also placed anticolonial thinkers in a privileged position to rethink the modern ideal of popular sovereignty and its implication for democratic rule. Anticolonial political thinkers thus questioned the validity of theorizing the people as a “collective will” or as a sovereign entity detached from the enterprise of government. The dissertation ultimately argues that the critical tradition of Indian anticolonial thought was driven by the insight that the enactment of democracy in the colonial world requires not just the overcoming of empire but also the political ideals imprisoned in the developmental picture of the globe.

The first two chapters reframe the problem of colonialism in the history of political thought. Reading G.W.F. Hegel and J.S. Mill together in the imperial context of the nineteenth century, Chapter 1 argues that the turn to the framework of historical development replaced and departed from human-centric or purely societal approaches to colonial difference. I suggest that Hegel’s theorization of development as global, connected, and contradiction-driven captured this new philosophical shift in nineteenth-century thought. The chapter then shows how the disqualification of Indian sovereignty on the premise of its absent peoplehood allowed for shoring up the normative validity of representative democracy while legitimating imperial rule abroad. In the process, the political map of the nineteenth century transformed into a global hierarchy of peoplehood. The second chapter explores the formation of the global scope of popular sovereignty from the vantage point of nineteenth-century Indian political thought. Nineteenth-century liberalism—imperial as well as Indian— drove a wedge between the two prongs of modern democracy: self-government (understood as popular participation in government) and popular sovereignty. Working within this divide, Indian liberals defined “self-government” as the political participation of the “advanced” sections of the people, while anchoring it in the liberal promise of empire. The result was an affirmation of the sovereign authority of the British people at the expense of further deferring Indian peoplehood.

The third chapter theorizes the colonial paradox of peoplehood that Indian anticolonial thinkers grappled with in their attempts to conceptualize self-rule, or swaraj. The persistence of the developmentalist figuration of the people brought the swaraj theorists in confrontation with the not-yet claimable figure of the people at the very moment of disavowing the British claim to rule. Revisiting this underappreciated pre-Gandhian history of the concept of swaraj and reinterpreting its Gandhian moment, this chapter offers a new reading of Gandhi’s theory of moral self-rule. I argue that Gandhi simultaneously rejected the developmental framework and the very criterion of popular authorization. The result was a displacement of the source of political action from the collective to the self. In so doing, the chapter theorizes the political dimension of Gandhi’s otherwise moral theory of action and recovers the conceptual innovation that turned the eccentric Mahatma into one of the most influential anticolonial thinkers of the twentieth century.

Recovering a largely forgotten body of pluralist political thought from early twentieth-century India, the fourth chapter studies how the question of popular sovereignty shaped the federalist reconfiguration of anticolonial democracy. Through a sustained engagement with British pluralist and American progressive thought, Indian federalist thinkers developed a many-willed conception of the people to overcome the rejection of Indian peoplehood on grounds of lack of nationhood and historical backwardness. However, the alternative source of sovereignty the federalists pointed to—plural and many-willed— stood in tension with their simultaneous pursuit of a people speaking in one voice. In this way, the constitutive tension of the pluralist conception of sovereignty came strikingly alive in the colonial world.

The fifth chapter revisits the moment of the postcolonial founding—a much-misunderstood episode of anticolonial political thought. This chapter focuses on the political thought of Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar. Nehru mapped the parallel between scarce and abundant futures onto the distinction between destitute masses and the people of the future. This allowed Nehru to attribute the agency for resistance to the not-yet people, while drawing the authorization of the centralized planning state from the claim of a developed future. Nehru’s vision of postcolonial sovereignty ultimately turned out to be a hope for sovereignty over the time of development itself. Ambedkar offered a powerful critique of the Nehruvian project of postcolonial founding, especially its folding of the problem of group conflicts into a progressive narrative of historical development. The chapter concludes by suggesting that Ambedkar’s proposal to accommodate group conflicts at the political level perspicaciously resisted the assumption that historical development could address the problem of a splintered social.

The epilogue of the dissertation considers the postcolonial career of democracy and development in the once-colonized world. Given the historical co-constitution of development and democracy in the postcolonial world, I argue that it is neither sufficient to offer a narrow democratic defense of development nor is it satisfactory to displace the question of democracy itself onto the dispute over development. In contrast, I suggest that the philosophical insight and political creativity of anticolonial political thinkers consisted in their questioning of the developmental terms and conditions of popular sovereignty—and the conception of the globe that underpins it.


Peer-Reviewed Publications: 

“Self-Rule and the Problem of Peoplehood in Colonial India,” American Political Science Review 114, no. 1 (2020): 81-94.


This article theorizes the colonial problem of peoplehood that Indian anticolonial thinkers grappled with in their attempts to conceptualize self-rule, or swaraj. British colonial rule drew its legitimacy from a developmentalist conception of the colonized people as backward and disunited. The discourse of “underdeveloped” colonial peoplehood rendered the Indian people “unfit” for self-government, suspending their sovereignty to an indefinite future. The concept of swaraj would be born with the rejection of deferred colonial self-government. Yet the persistence of the developmentalist figuration of the people generated a crisis of sovereign authorization. The pre-Gandhian swaraj theorists would be faced with the not-yet claimable figure of the people at the very moment of disavowing the British claim to rule. Recovering this underappreciated pre-Gandhian history of the concept of swaraj and reinterpreting its Gandhian moment, this article offers a new reading of Gandhi’s theory of moral self-rule. In so doing, it demonstrates how the history of swaraj helps trace the colonial career of popular sovereignty.