Blame it on the People

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.


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9 Responses to “Blame it on the People”

  1. Aakar Says:

    Let us accept Prof Gupta’s sequence, and constituencies respond to the actions of leaders.
    Let’s say a leader initiates or facilitates civic violence. The people respond and vote him back. In this case is the leader creating a new situation or acting on what he had believed, correctly apparently, his constituency wanted?
    If the latter, then our sequence is not right for this event. The leader has reacted and not acted. Then could we blame the people for is one?

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Aakar: We may be missing something but I feel the same way as you do. The argument does not come across as fully convincing.

    At the simple level of fact, while there are many cases (like Blair in UK) where leaders have ignored popular opinion, there are quite a few others where popular opinion has forced policy changes – the Civil Rights Act in the US would be one example.

    The more nuanced issue is the one you have raised. The question that came to my mind was if leaders in a democracy knew people were going to vote on their record why would some leaders offer bland policies? Is the difference just one of random variance in the quality of leadership? Should we not at the same time explore what might be perversions in the functioning of democracy in different situations?

    Having said that, let me try and offer one possible defense against the point you have raised. Leaders represent not one but a bundle of many policies each one of which pleases some voters and displeases others. They are voted upon as a bundle only at four or five year intervals. A re-election should not be seen as an endorsement of every or any particular policy position of a leader; only that he/she represents the most acceptable bundle or, perhaps more accurately, the least unattractive one at a particular moment in time. Others may represent even worse choices.

    What might get around this bundling problem would be if we could incorporate referenda on specific policy issues or a popular recall vote as part of the functioning of democracy.

    • Aakar Says:

      No, I don’t think voting happens on the record, though it is apparently happening quite a lot now.
      The evidence is that Indians vote in confessional fashion. The riot election represents the apogee of this, because all castes are included in the orbit and only faith is outside. This is unusual, and usually it is caste.
      Is one caste big enough to carry an election? Even in a first-past-the-post system, which requires about a third of the vote usually, perhaps not. However, parties and voters understand this.
      This is why coalitions are formed. And caste coalitions are along certain patterns that are also linked to identity. For instance competing castes rarely join together. In Bihar the opposing parties are each led by a peasant, one Yadav and the other Kurmi.
      Bihar is thought to be with the Kurmi because of superior governance, but that doesn’t explain why the Yadav was returned for two elections before that. Perhaps the Kurmi caste arithmetic is better. Perhaps people just line up behind a winner.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Aakar: I have no evidence to support this but I tend to feel you are right on Bihar. We are so influenced by the formal model that we tend to (or want to) attribute votes to quality of governance when something quite different might actually be going on. The utility function of the South Asian voter is something we really have not bothered to figure out so far. It is not the actual motivation but the theoretical expectation that drives our interpretation and rationalization of observed behavior.

  3. Vinod Says:

    SA, I think it is well known that most voters are single-issue voters and not bundle-voters.

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    A Wikileak confirmation of how democracy works in South Asia – cash for votes – it’s illegal “but that’s the great thing about democracy.”

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