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The Enduring Challenge of Building a Just Society

The Enduring Challenge of Building a Just Society Zoya Hasan The essays in Explaining Indian Democracy: A Fifty-Year Perspective, 1956-2006 spanning over five decades of Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph

The Enduring Challenge of Building a Just Society

Zoya Hasan

not an archaic social institution, but a vehicle for political development and the lower castes acting through caste associations could use it to dismantle the traditional system of power and hierarchy.

These studies have contributed significantly to deepening our understanding of

he essays in Explaining Indian Democracy: A Fifty-Year Perspective, 1956-2006 spanning over five decades of Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph’s scholarship on India is divided into three volumes: The Realm of Ideas: Inquiry and Theory; The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change; and The Realm of the Public Sphere: Identity and Policy. These essays bring together the work of two highly respected scho lars whose long-standing engagement with India has enriched our understanding of India’s democratic experience, the character of its politics and transformation.

Broadly three connected themes form the focus of the Rudolphs’ study of Indian politics. The first, about how culture shapes the trajectory of modernisation and economic development, the second relates to the centrality and autonomy of the state that emerges from these processes, and finally, political and institutional change in the last two decades.

The essays in The Realm of Ideas: I nquiry and Theory seek to address some of the foundational issues of methods and modes of inquiry, construction of categories, and how the historical context shapes political analysis and explanation. The authors make a case for “situated knowledge” and indict the “imperialism of categories” implicit in universal theories that inevitably draw on the western experience. They observe:

The imperialism of categories entails an unselfconscious parochialism of categories scholars from a dominant culture sometimes called the centre, travel to a distant and lesser place, sometimes called the periphery, where they apply universal concepts. The trouble is that these concepts have been fashioned out of the centre’s materials – in our case out of Anglo-American clay.

Caste Associations

The Realm of the Public Sphere: Identity and Policy centres on the role of culture in

book review

Explaining Indian Democracy: A Fifty-Year Perspective, 1956-2006 by Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; Volume I (The Realm of Ideas: Inquiry and Theory); pp xv + 324, Rs 695; Volume II (The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change); pp xv + 344, Rs 695; Volume III (The Realm of the Public Sphere: Identity and Policy); pp xvii + 435, Rs 750.

shaping modernisation of societies and economies in the third world. Based on a study of caste associations, the thought and activities of Gandhi, and the realm of legal culture, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development argued that modernity and tradition are dialectical rather than dichotomous processes that penetrate and permeate each other. The political interpretation given to caste was in their own words, “probably our most important contribution to the study of Indian politics”. In a highly influential article “The Political Role of India’s Caste Associations” they call attention to the role of caste in providing a link between the electorate and the modern democratic process. This understanding posed a challenge to the immutable notions of culture and caste as a fixed system which was an obstacle to change and modernisation. On the contrary, caste associations by participating in the formal political process and organising themselves according to the constitutional distribution of power in states, districts, sub-districts, and so on provided the basis for political mobilisation and upward mobility for castes. Rejecting the distinction between tradition and modernity which was based on crude i deal-types which were insensitive to the dynamics of political change, they found that traditional forms of social organisation such as caste strengthen democracy and could facilitate political integration into modern polities. In other words, caste was

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traditional institutions and ongoing processes of adaptation and innovation. However, by according such high priority to tradition, their analysis is open to the criticism that it understates the consequences of identity politics that has overwhelmed India’s democracy in the past few decades. More recent political developments have shown that politicisation of caste has i ncreased its salience rather than diminish it. More generally, identity politics has assumed a decisive position in politics and has altered the dynamics of the political system resulting in political fragmentation and breakdown of the party system and several political parties. But even within the realm of identity politics it is open to the criticism that it neglects the politics of more disadvantaged groups or politics from below.

State Formation and Political Economy

For the Rudolphs, the political economy of India has remained a major area of academic inquiry. The essays in The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change provide a larger comparative historical framework in which the phenomenon of Indian state formation can be understood. The book In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State

a ttempts to explain national trends in state formation and political economy by grounding the development of the post-independent state in history, culture and economy. An example of this interpretation is the 1985 article, “The Sub-Continental Empire and the Regional Kingdom in I ndian State Formation”, which contrasts “the loosely structured, segmentary, powersharing, multinational imperial form characteristic of Indian state form” with the centralised European nation states – an a rgument that questioned the projection of the European nation state as the universal form of the state. In other words, the

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historical trajectory of Indian state formation points to a remarkable continuity from the Mauryas to the Mughals to British imperial forms; they go on to suggest that the preservation or creation and maintenance of local jurisdictions under a central power are embodied today in India’s broadly federal system.

The Rudolphs’ characterisation of I ndian politics as centrist forms the pivot of their analysis of the state. They insist that politics and political economy have been and are likely to remain centrist – meaning politically and economically middle of the road. Centrism derives from the state’s role as a powerful third actor which mitigates the antagonistic relationship between capital and labour and thus minimises social and economic conflict. Other factors contributing to the predominance of centrism are the fragmentation of confessional politics, the imperatives of capturing power in Delhi, and the constraints on the federal system imposed by social pluralism and cultural diversity. The Indian state is at the same time strong and weak. It is strong because it controls the commanding heights of the economy, because it has managed to create a large basic industries sector, because its centrism has enabled it to minimise social and economic conflicts. It is weak because it has been unable to penetrate the countryside, because high levels of mobilisation infringe on its autonomy, and, above all, because the Congress Party was deinstitutionalised and personalised during Indira Gandhi’s rule. Despite its many weaknesses, the state emerges as the dominant player in the economy and enjoys autonomy.

In their analysis of the state, the authors place considerable emphasis on state autonomy which rests in large measure on the marginality of class politics. According to them, India’s distinctive centrist dynamic and pluralist conditions are basically “inhospitable to class politics” and categories of caste, ethnicity and religious communities were much more important than class. Contrary to conventional understanding, they contend that the green revolution has not led to class polarisation, in fact, bullock capitalists – cultivators of moderate means who control the capital involved in farm production – have become the hegemonic class. They spearheaded a new agrarianism which demanded higher prices for agri cultural produce that would benefit the entire peasantry. The Rudolphs contend that the rural-urban sectoral conflict was far more important than class poli tics in a new scenario in which the peasantry was vulnerable to prices set by forces outside the village. Conversely, class politics has not been overshadowed by sectoral politics in all states; it is and remains salient in more than a few states. Moreover, inhospitality to class politics does not signify the absence of class or class inequalities. Moreover, evidence from the green revolution highlights an accentuation of class inequalities and widening income disparities in the countryside, which would suggest that new agrarianism was not able to overcome social conflict, in fact, it may have led to the aggravation of class polarisation. While the Rudolphs were quite c orrect in identifying the emergence of new agrarianism as an important development in rural politics leading to the growth of farmers’ movements in several states which bargained for better terms of trade for agriculture, they did not take a dequate notice of the fact that these movements benefited the rich peasants and wealthy cultivators.

Further, there are several issues with regard to the question of state autonomy and the extent to which centrism contributes to it. Their analysis overestimates state autonomy and the political depth of centrism on which it rests and underestimates its erosion by class and communal politics and processes which undermine it. In denying the importance of class in favour of a theory of interests they fail to take into account the influence and clout of dominant classes and their control over democratic politics. Besides, the overemphasis on powerful leaders underrates the socio-economic determinants of politics. Much of the responsibility for weakening of democracy and political institutions was due to Indira Gandhi’s penchant for personalistic power and her drive towards centralisation of power, but neither the need to reshape the Congress into a personal tool nor her capacity to do so was conceivable if the party had not already been in serious and growing disarray. Moreover, the decline was not due to factors that were altogether internal to the Congress; it was very much the result of paradigmatic changes in the polity, economy and society, and the entry of new elites in the political arena from the late 1960s who began to challenge Congress’ hold on power.

Although the concept of centrism is important for understanding the politics of the Indian state, it tends to obscure the enormous policy changes that India has experienced in the post-Nehruvian period. It ignores the failure of the avowedly middle of the road, centrist Congress Party, to uphold and sustain the model of accommodative politics on which our democracy was premised. It is well known that the Congress government in 1991 altered the development strategy and policy initiatives to restructure the basis of

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the economy led to a major ideological religious sentiment came into focus from shift from state-regulated economy to a the early 1980s when Indira Gandhi want-


more market-centred economy. However, a number of scholars, most notably, Atul Kohli, have pointed out that the rudiments of this policy were put in place in the early 1980s during the rule of Indira Gandhi (1980-89) and later during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime (1984-89). The key development in this regard was the growing influence of private capital and big business groups during Rajiv Gandhi’s term as prime minister which point towards an about-face on centrism in Indian politics. In subsequent years privatisation and liberalisation led to a change in the balance of forces among public, private and foreign capital resulting in a much greater role for the capitalist sector than ever before. The power and influence of business groups have grown which brought about a change in the class configuration underlying the state endangering the “social contract” on the basis of which the modern state was established.

The shift in the class underpinnings of the state in favour of an openly procapitalist state with a neoliberal ideology involved a switch from one set of policies to another. It entailed a shift from a “neutral” state standing above classes and mediating between them to one that b egan to act predominantly in the interests of the upper echelons of society and increasingly integrated into the global economy. Active state intervention can mitigate social and economic inequalities but the state has backed away from its role in providing welfare benefits to the vulnerable population. It is hard to explain these big shifts in the character of state intervention in view of the overwhelming significance of centrism in Indian politics. Equally hard to explain within this framework is the growth of inequalities that have marked recent economic development as the state pulls its weight behind the rich and powerful which has further intensified disparities and inequalities.

Pull of Centrism?

The Rudolphs also underestimate the role of the Congress in giving a fillip to majoritarianism. The propensity of the Congress to play “the communal card” which takes the form of pragmatic accommodation of ed to appropriate the ideas that had traditionally belonged to the Hindu right. The suggestive theme of majoritarianism conveyed through a talk of threats to national unity from anti-national minorities began to find its way in the political mobilisation campaigns and was useful following the disarray in the Congress Party organisation and the decline in its support in northern and central India.

By far the most disturbing aspect of the analysis is the attribution of the centrist institutional logic to the BJP. It has been argued by the authors as well as many other political scientists that all political parties seeking power in India have to r espect the exigencies of democratic electoral politics and are therefore subject to a centripetal influence that drives them to the centre. In sum, the compulsions of coalition politics, electoral pressures, and more generally, democratic norms would contain the more extreme and dangerous elements of the Hindutva brigade. Communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 put paid to such expectations. These claims notwithstanding, the formation of a BJP-led government at the centre from 1998-2004 was a crucial turning point in Indian politics. The rising influence of the BJP has had a major impact on the nature and functioning of the state, civil society and culture. It pushed ahead with its partisan agenda in several instances by shifting the centre of gravity to the right. Be it the communalisation of the polity, communalising national security, Hinduising educational policy, weakening of the welfare state, and condoning the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, the BJP’s legacy is disquieting, to say the least.

Most significant is the continued tendency to denigrate Muslims and to persist with the mobilisation of support on an anti-Muslim platform and by championing causes that appeal to the majority Hindu community. Yet, there is a strong propensity to overrate the strategic shift towards moderation because the BJP’s election campaigns stress themes of governance and development or because it shelved the most contentious aspects of its agenda to forge a coalition. For many observers this is a sign that India’s

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d emocratic politics and the pull of centrism acts as a constraint on the extent to which right wing forces could fully pursue their extreme political designs. However, the BJP has not moved to the centre and has not moderated its anti-minority stance. It continues to have close ties to the RSS and repeatedly makes use of hate speech to create polarisation and foment violence for the sake of winning an election. It knowingly speaks in two voices – strident Hindutva to a ppeal to its core constituency and a moderate stand to broaden its electoral support and to safeguard its electoral coalition. Indeed, double speak is an essential part of the BJP’s strategy but this should not delude us into accepting as true their claims of moderation. These developments call into question the resilience of Indian centrism and its moderating influence on the Hindu right. In particular, a question these e ssays do not address is how did India’s democracy become so vulnerable to extremism and religious politics?

The Last Two Decades

Institutional change is a major focus of their work. Two important articles – “Redoing the Constitutional Design” and “New Dimensions of Indian Democracy”

– deal with emerging trends and explore the nature of institutional change in the past two decades. These processes of change parallel major changes in the balance among political institutions in the a ftermath of economic reforms which signalled the end of India’s state-dominated economy, and the beginning of a marketoriented one in 1991. “Redoing the Constitutional Design” examines the causes and consequences of the emergence of the Supreme Court, the Election Commision and the president as effective and respected institutions, and the decline in the effectiveness of the political executive and Parliament. Thanks to the new p olitical roles assumed by these institutions deinstitutionalisation over the past three decades has not had such a debilitating effect. Furthermore, the Rudolphs draw attention to the role these institutions have played in easing and moderating the damage caused by the fragmentation of the polity. They suggest these i nstitutions have worked to reinvigorate institutional capital and check undemocratic excesses in the party system. In short, they draw attention to certain political developments in the new phase which point not only towards weakening of democracy, but towards resurgence of institutions too.

Contrary trends with regard to growing political fragmentation, effectiveness and neutrality of political institutions, leadership strategies, and accommodation of diverse groups are however important and worth noting. The decreasing credibility of political institutions particularly legislatures and political parties as effective institutions capable of delivering on policies for the public good are matters of concern. Briefly, Parliament’s role in the decision-making process is b ecoming more marginal than it was in the formative years of our democracy. This is on top of the recent trend for the government to curtail or cut down the length of the session, reducing the originally scheduled number of days of sitting. A serious and proactive Parliament can aid good governance, but the expectations of the citizens can only be fulfilled if the institutions of Parliament, and its members, are well informed, committed and sensitised.

The most disturbing trends are noticeable in political parties which function as family fiefdoms and without a trace of internal democracy. Unsurprisingly, most political parties lack the political capacity to take the lead in formulating and debating policies which reflect people’s aspirations and needs. Although parties and party leaders do profess to stand for ideology in actual fact they are flexible and not at all reluctant to give up their ideological stance or put it on the back burner if that helps them to gain a share of political power or to obtain a ticket for contesting an election. For many political leaders a career in politics has become a vehicle to amass a fortune or promote personal interest at the expense of public interest. Winning an election for most politicians simply means having access to state resources and very often for personal gain. The all pervasive coalition logic based on winning formulas and post-poll alliances has furthered the destruction of politics and heightened the tendency of leaving the people out of the political discourse. Consequently, political processes have much less power over the policy decisions and implementation which is critical in shaping people’s lives and livelihood. The divergence between election rhetoric and the actual implementation of government policy remains large particularly with regard to policies that have distributive and welfare outcomes. In more recent years, the increasing focus on economic growth has led to an insulation of decision- making from popular pressures and focus instead on preserving the status quo for the sake of the current economic boom. Most g overnments end up attending to the d emands and anxieties of powerful and articulate sections of the upper and m iddle classes.

And, yet, democratic resilience is a remarkable feature of India’s post-independence journey and has also been the most important means to pursue public ends. India’s success in building and consolidating a vibrant democracy remains unequaled in the post-colonial world. The Rudolphs’ work drew from India’s experience to demonstrate that democratic states had much greater powers of accommodation and resilience than had been anticipated. Their exceptional contribution lies in providing a contextual and culturally sensitive analysis of the distinctiveness of Indian politics that has contributed to these outcomes. Although their scholarly writings have been much debated, this collection of their varied works is nevertheless valuable as it speaks to c ontemporary themes of democracy, d evelopment and change, and to the e nduring challenge of building a just and egalitarian society.

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