Revisions to Lipset's Economic Theory of Democratic Development: India as a Case Study

By Anwesha Banerjee
Cornell International Affairs Review
2012, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

This kind of development was impossible for India, because it went from being a loose collection of hundreds of states with regional rulers, to spending 200 years under British rule, and then suddenly being allowed to choose its own government after gaining independence, with the newly created Pakistan, and soon after, Bangladesh, as neighbors. There were no other styles of self-government preceding democracy for India, because it only became a unified country after its freedom from colonialism. Lipset himself said that “a political form may develop because of a syndrome of fairly unique historical factors”27 and this is most definitely true for India.

Furthermore, the very phenomenon of struggling to free itself from an oppressive colonizer can invoke in a country an intense reverence for the democratic virtues such as civil rights and freedoms, making it more likely to become a democracy after emancipation. This also could have contributed to India’s immediate choice of democracy as the form of self-government after independence. In this way, India is very similar to the United States. In his analysis of democratic development, Samuel Huntington notes the same effect of the special circumstance of British colonialism on development in America.

The experience of oppression by a tyrant makes the country so fearful of strong government that it becomes predisposed to think of government as something to be restricted rather than something to build up. This naturally leads its people to prefer democracy and the freedoms it affords as their choice for self-government. Huntington’s own words on the topic are very cogent, and thus worth quoting at some length:

Huntington’s description of American political development rings uncannily true for India as well. After 200 years of being oppressed by Great Britain, like Americans, Indians were not willing to entrust that much power again with any uncontested entity or person, and thus, they chose democracy. So, the special circumstance of postcolonialism is a two-fold reason for why India does not fit Lipset’s theory. First, India’s democracy did not develop from a previous form of self-government, and second, the struggle against a foreign oppressor made people prefer restricted government, creating a value set of rights, freedoms, and liberties, which gave way to a democracy.

Nationally shared democratic values can also be created from a source other than just education, as Lipset suggests, or traumatic experiences of colonialism, as discussed above. Another common source is religion. Lipset takes a very economy-based approach to the development of democracy. That is not to say that he ignores the role of values and the spread of ideas entirely, but rather, he embeds it into his theory of economic development. He regards democratic values and ideas as being a direct result of a growing economy, because he says that increased wealth leads to better education, which “broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance…and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices.”28

By contrast, he claims that “’homeless illiterates’…provide a ready audience for…extreme ideologies.”29 This is an oversimplification of a much more complex dynamic, one that includes more variables. For example, Lipset himself points out that Germany and France, while highly educated nations of Europe, did not easily stabilize into democracies. He is unable to explain why, vaguely attributing these gaping exceptions to “other anti-democratic forces” at work.30 In reality, while it is true that the economics and finance of a country have much to do with its propensity to become a democracy, religion can also contribute to the spread of democratic ideas as well. The values promoted by the religion of the majority of a country can incline it towards becoming democracy or not.

For example, as Huntington claimed, “Confucian heritage, with its emphasis on authority, order, hierarchy, and supremacy of the collectivity over the individual, creates obstacles to democratization.”31 So far, this has proven to be true, for China remains the world’s largest communist state. In India’s case, 80 percent of Indians are Hindus.32 Hinduism is known as a religion of tolerance and acceptance,33 and these religious values helped build the foundation of democratic principles in India, despite widespread poverty and slow industrialization. “The support for democracy in India under such difficult conditions cannot be understood without an appreciation of the tremendous strength that Gandhi drew from some traditional Hindu religious values and styles of action in his peaceful struggles for independence [and] democracy…”34

Indeed, a drawback to Lipset’s theory is that he virtually ignores the monumental effect that the religious consciousness of a country can have on developing political ideals. The case study of India illustrates the importance of ingrained values and beliefs in a people, often from religion and not from education or industrialization. Lipset’s theory could be revised to add this important point to have a more holistic set of variables that lead to democracy.

Seymour M. Lipset

A farmer ploughs his field with oxen in Kadmati Village, Brahampur, West Bengal, India

Seymour Lipset boldly claimed that “only in a wealthy society in which relatively few citizens live…in real poverty could a situation exist in which the mass of the population could intelligently participate in politics and could develop the self-restraint necessary to avoid succumbing to the appeals of irresponsible demagogues,”35 but this claim is only partially and sometimes true, and requires revision.

While the general correlation seems to ring true for most democracies, India is a major exception. India poses a great challenge to his theory because it boasts a strong democracy without having followed the trajectory Lipset claimed necessary for the its development: increased wealth leading to strong education, which leads to industrialization, which leads to democracy. India fits some but not all of these categories, and there are several reasons why.

First of all, Lipset erroneously assumes sequence and causality among a set of factors that are simply loosely correlated. Second of all, India’s unique history of post-colonial political development is a “special circumstance,” as Lipset calls it, allowing India to relatively easily settle into a stable democracy without having the “social requisites.” Finally, Lipset ignores—or at least, greatly underappreciates—the role of religion in imbibing a nation’s collective consciousness with democratic values. While education has quite an impact as well, the Hindu principles of toleration and acceptance have gone a long way towards creating and maintaining a stable democracy in India.

In short, Lipset’s theory is not incorrect, but rather inadequate, and certain revisions are in order. Changing the presumption of causality to correlation would be the first step towards amending it. Secondly, a clause should be added acknowledging the role of a nationally shared value set, deriving often from religion, in leading to a democracy. India, in particular, also had the “special circumstance” of postcolonialism, which further encouraged the emergence of democracy there. To conclude, a revised, adjusted theory (that would account for India, as well) would be: Wealth, education, industrialization, and democratically-inclined religious beliefs are all associated with stable democracies. The more a country has of any of these factors, the more likely it is to develop and sustain a democracy.


  1. S. M. Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Association 53 (1959): 69.
  2. World Bank, “GNI per capita, Atlas method (current US$),” 11 April 2011, .
  3. World Bank, “Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty line (% of population),” 11 April 2011, .
  4. World Bank, “Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty line (% of population),” 11 April 2011, .
  5. Atul Kohli, The success of India’s democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 3.
  6. S. M. Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Association 53 (1959): 80.
  7. Lipset, 82.
  8. Lipset, 75.
  9. Lipset, 83.
  10. Srinivas, M. N, “Caste in Modern India,” The Journal of Asian Studies 16 (1957): 529.
  11. Eastman, Julia, “Notes on Higher Education in India: Current Status and Issues,” Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (Victoria: University of Victoria Press, 2011) 1.
  12. Basu, Kaushik, “India’s faltering education system,” BBC News 18 Aug. 2006, 14 April 2011 .
  13. World Bank, “Primary completion rate, total (% of relevant age group),” 11 April 2011, .
  14. Quoted in Lipset, 82.
  15. Kohli, 3.
  16. Kohli-Khandekar, 17.
  17. Lipset, 78.
  18. World Bank, “Rural population (% of total population),” 11 April 2011, .
  19. World Bank, “Rural population (% of total population),” .
  20. Lipset, 78.
  21. World Bank, “Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita),” 11 April 2011, .
  22. World Bank, “Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita),” 11 April 2011, .
  23. Lipset, 70.
  24. ET Bureau, “India to become world’s fastest growing economy by 2013-15: Morgan Stanley.” The Economic Times 17 Aug. 2010, 16 April 2011 .
  25. Lipset, 75
  26. Moore, Barrington, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) 11.
  27. Lipset, 72.
  28. Lipset, 79.
  29. Lipset, 81.
  30. Lipset, 79.
  31. Huntington’s Class of Civilizations, quoted in Alfred Stepan, “Religion, Democracy and the “Twin Tolerations,”” Journal of Democracy, 11.4 (2000): 38.
  32. Ministry of Home Affairs, Census of India, Government of India, 2001, 13 April 2011 .
  33. Goel, 6.
  34. Stepan, 55.
  35. Lipset, 75

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