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Indian Democracy: Puzzle of Unanswered Questions

The State of India's Democracy edited by Sumit Ganguly,

Indian Democracy: Puzzle of Unanswered Questions

Sanjeeb Mukherjee

I
t is time we moved away from soft, self-congratulatory and patronising assessments of Indian democracy and asked hard questions about popular rule, popular demands and popular justice, because democracy is all about the self-rule of the people. In the introduction of The State of India’s Democracy, Sumit Ganguly makes two such familiar points: one, “The emergence and persistence of Indian democracy are theoretical and historical anomalies” (p ix), and, two, the essays in this book argue that in India “democracy is faring very well indeed and shows signs of continuing vitality” (p xviii). Of course, to balance his claim, he makes some qualifications about ethnic violence, partisan law enforcement agencies and stark regional differences.

The puzzle of Indian democracy that makes me wonder is why could not democracy establish a modicum of justice, why is the majority steeped in poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and oppression, especially when it is claimed that the majority rules or decides under a democracy. In spite of popular rule, popular leaders and popular ideologies in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, why could not they address serious questions of popular justice? In other words, why has not the anxiety of the elites, that under democracy the masses would rob them of their riches and privileges, come true in India? Or, why have not the worst fears of Marxists come true that under popular pressure the ruling classes would dump democracy, which is what they do in most of the third world?

Threat from Below

The State of India’s Democracy is divided into four parts, namely, Politics, State, Society and Economy, which obviously is a comprehensive coverage. In the first part, Christophe Jaffrelot has written on caste and the rise of marginalised groups and analysed

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 24, 2009

book review

The State of India’s Democracy edited by Sumit Ganguly, Larry Diamond and Marc F Plattner

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2009; pp xxvii + 231, Rs 675 (hardback).

the challenge posed by lower castes, classes and communities to the decades-long rule by traditional upper caste elites. He calls it a revolution “through the polling booth” (p 81). He makes an important conclusion by saying that popular power in this time of liberalisation and market dominance has been undermined because the market has freed itself from the state and the elite are happy about it. So he argues that “For Indian d emocracy, the real danger lies more in this changing mentality of the elite than in any revolutionary threat from below” (p 83).

The relative success of Indian democracy is due to the model, which was built by the elites from the time of the national movement and perfected by our Constitution-makers and Jawaharlal Nehru. This model, I would suggest, consisted of two sets of strategies; first, make pre-emptive moves and then, persuade the people. And the most powerful pre-emptive move was the establishment of a parliamentary democracy with universal franchise, which in most other countries came after years of popular struggle. This strategy continues to work in the form of reducing the voting age or enacting welfare and protective legislation for the people. This is accompanied by a hegemony building strategy by the elites by promising justice, welfare and development and taking some such measures, both real and symbolic.

Co-option, Compromises and Coercion

The second set consists of a strategy, which involves co-option, compromises and coercion. Thus we find new backward

vol xliv no 43

class, dalit or even the left leaders, who had put in long years of popular struggles being firmly ensconced in power and turning into more cunning copies of the former elites. Through compromises the Indian state has managed to co-opt these leaders making a caricature of the silent revolu

tion, which Jaffrelot is talking of. The s uccess of this strategy legitimises our democracy and the State.

Finally, coercion by the armed might of the State defends and restores this elite d emocracy and it consists of both, focused localised coercion as well as spectacular wars which the state conducts against the people, whether in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh or in the north-east. The balance and mix of these elements varies over time and space. The success of this strategy has kept out serious political forces, like those led by Medha Patkar or the Maoists, who

o therwise could have made a major difference to the elite character of our democracy. In fact, the more they shun the institutional forms of our democracy, the more the State resorts to greater doses of coercion. Finally, for a country as big and diverse as India, no elite rule is possible without some form of democratic sanction.

Rajeev Gowda and Sridharan write about political parties and the party system and the central argument is that the decline of the Congress and the rise of new parties has not undermined the basic power sharing system, and has, in fact, contributed to the consolidation of democracy. Steven Wilkinson makes a reading of the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2004 elections and raises the importance of coalition building. Rajat Ganguly’s essay is on democracy and ethnic conflict. He argues that secularism, federalism and reservations have managed to accommodate diversities, and in spite of serious ethnic strife in Kashmir, Punjab or in the north-east and the state repression, at the end of the day “India is still a firmly established constitutional democracy” (p 63).

In the second section on the State, Pratap Bhanu Mehta raises some hard questions about the Supreme Court, which otherwise enjoys the greatest trust and credibility amongst all Indian public

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institutions. He points to three ironies; first, even as the higher judiciary entertains public interest litigations, it is blind to the mind-boggling backlogs and criminal delays; second, the Supreme Court has failed to articulate a coherent public philosophy in spite of its worthy pronouncements; and finally, with all its power the court has not been able to explain the source of its authority (p 109).

Mehta adds, “The legitimacy and power that India’s judiciary does enjoy most likely flow not from a clear and consistent constitutional vision, but rather from its opposite” (p 113). If this proposition is clearly established, it could be the most damning indictment of the Supreme Court. The authority and vision of the S upreme Court ideally flows from the Constitution and it is supposed to uphold the public philosophy of the Constitution, but then why these ironies, which Mehta brings to the fore? The reason I guess is simple; our judges and our political philosophers and public intellectuals have not cared to read the Indian Constitution, e specially the vision underlying the Directive Principles and the Fundamental Rights. The Directive Principles not only articulate the Constitution’s public philosophy, it offers India a new and radical v ision of justice and democracy. It is the spirit of the Constitution and uninformed by this spirit, the Supreme Court is reduced to any conceited munsif. The American Supreme Court at one crucial time performed this role when it expounded and enforced the Bill of Rights. Chhattisgarh, Kashmir and Nandigram pose the question of justice to Indian democracy and unless it is addressed, Indian democracy cannot be sustained or legitimised.

In two well-written pieces, Subrata Mitra and Arvind Verma discuss federalism and the police. Mitra has shown how federalism has bolstered democracy and how economic liberalism will further strengthen federalism. Verma points out the contradiction between a violent and brutal police force and democracy.

Emerging Civil Society

The third section of the book addresses civil society with articles by Niraja Jayal and Rob Jenkins, and Praveen Swami on the media revolution in India. I think the idea of civil society and corruption underlying Jayal and Jenkins’ articles are rather emaciated. Jayal narrowly defines civil s ociety and thus admits that “large sections of citizens remain outside the scope of organised civil society” due to the f ailure of political parties to perform western style interest-aggregation functions (p 143). This assumes the proper western bourgeois model of civil society to be the norm, which we have to emulate.

I would argue that outside our bourgeois enclaves a new kind of civil society, inspired by democracy, justice and rights, is emerging within castes and communities. It is emerging among dalits and backward classes and the best example is the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. It is a vernacular civil society, which is almost invisible in the English-speaking enclaves we inhabit. This non-bourgeois civil society among the people not only has a long past, but I believe has a future as well. In this context, I would wish to read Benode Bihari Mukherjee’s mural on medieval Indian saints and subalterns in Santiniketan as a vision of a democracy and a civil society to come. Or, the dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal’s pregnant line “Equality for all/or/Death for India”.

Jenkins’ idea of corruption is reduced to bribery leaving out the widespread abuse of power and the subversion of the law and the Constitution. Praveen Swami in a well-documented article on the media shows the phenomenal rise of the vernacular press and satellite television, which I think is a part of the emerging vernacular civil society. Between 2005 and 2006, the vernacular newspapers grew from 191 million to 203.6 million, whereas the English readership remained static at around 21 million (p 181).

Economy and Democracy

The fourth section of the book deals with the economy and democracy. Sunila Kale focuses on inequality in the states, which leads to demands for greater autonomy or secession. Aseema Sinha examines the relationship between economic reforms, markets, globalisation and economic growth and democracy in contemporary India. She, in sync with the thrust of the book, argues that economic liberalisation has reinforced and stabilised democracy.

october 24, 2009

I am perplexed by such a blasé take on the most serious global challenge facing democracy in our time. Under globalisation, capitalism is doing two things; first, it is subverting the sovereignty of states by removing the economy and economic resources from its control, and second, it is engaged in the most rapacious round of primitive accumulation by forcibly acquiring land and other natural resources, for which it shifts it trust from the market to the state. This is not only destroying the environment, but is a veritable war on the lives, livelihoods and cultures of the masses. Democracy is not just a procedural apparatus, where the people only have a quinary voting right. Democracy is selfrule or swaraj, it is based on justice and today in the time of globalisation democracy has to address the question of global justice as well.

However, under our elite democracy, economic reforms-led high economic growth has become a major tool in the hands of the state to bolster the Indian model of democracy by using the additional revenue generated by this growth to further play out its strategy of making pre-emptive moves, co-option, concessions and coercion. The left had always feared that the liberalisation-privatisation model would compel the state to withdraw from all welfare expenditures. Not only has that not happened, but the Manmohan Singh government is actually spending a lot more on popular welfare measures. This is the price of legitimacy and stability under conditions of democracy without justice.

However, this model of democracy is under serious strain and has exploded in Nandigram, Chhattisgarh, Singur and Kashmir. When popular resistance defies the co-option-concession model, the State resorts to violence and the people make a call for rebellion or even revolution. Both history and philosophy testify that to rebel is justified. The right to rebel is an elementary democratic right; it is inviolable and inalienable.

The right to make a revolution is not merely some extreme or radical communist demand. Classical liberals like John Locke defend it and it is also enshrined in the American and French Declarations and their constitutions too uphold it.

vol xliv no 43

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Economic & Political Weekly

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To me, the more fundamental issue is the relationship between revolution and democracy. Rebellions are not aimed at democracy; they are aimed at the State, a state that has usurped power and has become fundamentally unjust. The State, democracy

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--and capitalism are separate entities, though in countries with bourgeois hegemony they work in harmony. Most revolutions in history in their fight against state and capital have thrown away democracy as well. The challenge before the people and radical

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thought is how to defend and deepen democracy and fight for justice, and at the same time, resist the State and capitalism.

Sanjeeb Mukherjee (cusanjeeb@gmail.com) teaches politics in the University of Calcutta.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 24, 2009 vol xliv no 43

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