By Vijay Vikram
I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India’s choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it – along with Bollywood – is the source of much of our “soft power”, whatever that is.
I am not going to waste time listing the failures of our unique choice of government. They should be clear to any thinking Indian. What I am going to argue, however, is that democracy could never really have succeeded in the Indian climate. I ask you to be patient because mounting an intellectual challenge against something that possesses the degree of unthinking social acceptability the way democracy does requires effort and often I shall resort to polemic to get my point across.
I say that democracy could have never succeeded in India because India is a feudal society. By feudal I mean a state of affairs where unequal relationships between humans and between groups are socially legitimate. The very idea that humans should be or can be treated equally is an idea that would be alien to a feudal society. It also means that human beings are not viewed as individuals per se - a construct that has been one of the primary outcomes of the European Enlightenment. Rather, a feudal society imagines human beings as part of bigger social groups – religious, ethnic, regional and uniquely in the case of India, caste. Democracy, then, could only properly germinate and take hold in Europe and Europe-inspired societies after the absorption of Enlightenment ideology into the European DNA. The Enlightenment has washed up on the shores of India, yes. But, it has failed to take hold of the Indian imagination. It is groups that assert themselves in India – Dalit assertion, Muslim assertion, Gujjar assertion. The individual is nowhere to be seen.
The Nehruvian project’s central failing was its assumption that the extension of the universal franchise would transform the teeming masses of Hindustan – the various regional, religious and caste allegiances into the intellectually comfortable category of the Enlightenment individual. This was fantasy. Democracy is premised on the notion of the individual, and I use the term in a deliberately technical sense. Democracy can’t create the individual, it depends on the individual for its very existence.
The grafting of democratic government onto a society that has no basis for it has led to a peculiar and perverse state of affairs. Indian politics has become an arena for the contestation of identities rather than competing claims of the common good. As Lant Pritchett has pointed out:
Politicians have been able to survive on creating identities around caste and religion claiming to deliver social justice by the very fact of their election. That is, that someone of their group holds high office in and of itself provides social legitimacy to a group’s claims to fully equal participation in the social and political sphere. Attacks on these politicians for lack of effectiveness or corruption could be seen as, at best, missing the larger social point and at worst, as a retrograde attempt of the forces of the elite to “keep them in their place.”
The degeneration of politics in India and the values it has engendered have infected the country’s public institutions. Naresh Saxena, a former IAS officer who served in Uttar Pradesh, penned a note for the National Advisory Council at the time of the UPA’s first election into office (2004) that is breathtaking in its hard hitting honesty about the current state of affairs (particularly in North India) and which articulates a common view within the elite civil service that things are going downhill, in large part because the integrity and the non-partisan character of the civil service have deteriorated. He says:
…because between the expression of the will of the State (represented by politicians) and the execution of that will (through the administrators) there cannot be any long-term dichotomy. In other words, the model in which the politics will continue to be corrupt, casteist and will harbor criminals where as civil servants will continue to be efficient, responsive to public needs and change agents cannot be sustained indefinitely. In the long-run political and administrative values have to coincide.
I have often been asked what I consider an alternative to democracy to be. I would imagine that India needs a form of government that integrates market institutions into the fabric of the country without the wholesale import of political norms that have no roots in Indian society. My goal for now is simply to open the debate.
1) You can watch Arundhati’s critique of Indian Democracy here.
2) I owe a substantial intellectual debt to Lant Pritchett and his idea of India as a ‘Flailing’ State. Read his landmark paper here [PDF].
Vijay Vikram is Editor and Co-Founder of Centre Right India, an initiative dedicated to increasing political awareness and nurturing an intellectually vibrant right-of-centre tradition in India. This post is reproduced from Centre Right India with permission of the author.