By Dipankar Gupta
The fundamental law of politics is that rulers act and the ruled react. This truth has held in all hitherto existing societies: it is carbon dated, weather proofed and tropicalized. The difference democracy makes is that it lets the people judge its leaders, but only after they have already acted. When an elected leader advocates a policy in the name of popular will, it nearly always is a big lie. By using people as a cover, ugly politicians have found happiness in parliaments everywhere.
The sentiments of the people count when they are asked to judge a policy on Election Day. While votes do matter, they are always cast after the political act has taken place; never before it. A good democracy is that democracy where the electorate can take informed decisions when voting. They are never the architects of policy though clever politicians often use them as a foil.
When Tony Blair took Britain to war in Iraq he paid no heed to the voices in the streets. On the contrary, he claimed he was listening to voices in his head, and they were clearer. Soon the masses came around and he won the elections again. Going by the popular mood in London in February, 2003, who would have thought this possible?
Closer home, when mixed economy and non-alignment were the pillars of our national policy, nobody consulted the people. Nehru, in fact, went against many Congress members in pushing the Hindu Marriage Act. Come judgment time, the voters seemed to prefer this mix over others on offer and that is why the Congress kept getting elected. Nehru was not just asking grown ups to eat their vegetables, he was giving them a lot more to chew on.
His grandson, Rajiv Gandhi did not consult Panchayati Raj representatives either when structuring the 74th Amendment Bill. Did the BJP listen to the people of India before demolishing the mosque? It did not; it only hoped to capitalize on the reactions to its destruction. Is the NREGA scheme in place because of popular will, or is it there as a test of administrative will? In a true democracy the outcomes of all such initiatives are tested in elections, but they do not begin their careers in town squares, bus stops and tea shops; not even in village chaupals.
Interestingly, when a policy goes well then the credit for it redounds on the leader. Yet, popular will and too much democracy are blamed for every piece of botched politics and administrative inaction. When Rajiv Gandhi neutered the court judgment on Shah Bano, it was because of the popular will of Muslims (those other people); when the lock in Babri Masjid was broken, it was on account of the will of the majority; when riots in Gujarat happened, it was the nation exercised.
Or take the Commonwealth Games. People of Delhi were never consulted about its feasibility, yet when preparations fell behind schedule, the blame for it was on the excess of democracy. The truth is that when slums have to be demolished and the price is right, then it gets done right away- sometimes even to step up private schools. A quick look of the map of Delhi will show re-settlement colonies miles away from the centre of the capital. Not just slums, if it is in the interest of politicians and the price is right then even better off people are not spared.
When it comes to caste politics the tendency to blame the people is the greatest. The main reason why politicians get away with this lie is because most intellectuals believe it to be true. But once again, politicians have set the stage and all the props to conceal the fact that in terms of pure numbers no caste has enough votes to win an election to the Legislature or the Parliament.
Caste might work at the Gram Sabha level, but not in larger constituencies where there are just too many jatis, of roughly the same size, jostling for power. Yet, as this simple empirical detail is little known it allows the likes of Ravi Pratap Rudy to say with a straight face that when it comes to politics, caste is the hero. Sadly, many dalit leaders flog this poster image as well. In the case of ethnic killings too politicians put the onus on the people, but not as convincingly as in the case of caste. This is because there is a mass of evidence, collected by national and international scholars, that reveals how religious riots in India begin their innings in political pavilions.
What separates colonialism from democracy is not that the former doesn’t consult the people while the latter does. In both cases, it is the rulers that act. What, however, sets the two apart is that under foreign rule subjects cannot choose between leaders. This is where democracy makes a difference. Further, in a democracy there is at least another political dispensation, the opposition, both in fact and theory. In colonialism such a situation would be a contradiction in terms. But make no mistake: in neither case are people consulted.
Remember the tales of Panchatantra and those of Akbar and Birbal. Recall also the fables of the Ramrajya when the king listened to his subjects. The fact that these are fables is simply because such cuddly things never happened. The king consulted his ministers, but as in all such arrangements, it was ruinous to oppose the monarch. Every advice had to be aligned to the sovereign’s will. That courtier did the best who understood the mind of the throne better than others. No prizes for guessing why this should sound familiar in India today. Human beings have identical failings across time and space.
Democracy forces us to think differently. This is why democracy has to be treated very carefully for it goes against all previous forms of governance in history. Here leaders take the responsibility for their decisions leaving the people to judge how good or bad those decisions were. That is why it is said that democracy is the least flawed of all systems of governance.
While leaders in a democracy set the pace and the agenda, their respective policies are always on trial and could be voted out. This is why if any advance is made in a democracy it is always because of the leaders, never the people. If leaders come up with bland policies, masses can do little about it. Therefore, if some countries have gone ahead and beat poverty, while others have failed to do so, then the blame should fall squarely on the rulers and not on the backwardness of the people.
When certain progressive policies were inaugurated in modern times, from the abolition of slavery to the rights of minority, it was not because people were screaming for them. Leaders took the initiative, subsequent politicians tried to better them, and that is how advanced countries moved from strength to strength.
This shows, above all, that we do not get the leaders we deserve. As we can only choose between what is available, the leaders must deserve us. That is the true test of a democracy.
This article appeared first in Mail Today on January 1, 2011 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. Dipankar Gupta was formerly Professor of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.