Posts Tagged ‘Dynasty’

South Asia: In Search of Roots

January 21, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.

Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

The claim that the British period was epiphenomenal (an epiphenomenon being a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon) is supported by the evidence. In Dr. Ambedkar’s analogy, one could say the Indian soil is reclaiming its place and the top-dressing is becoming thinner by the day.

In order to push my understanding of South Asia, I have kept resorting to a thought experiment. Suppose an interlocutor, with no prior knowledge of the region but familiar with European history, were to ask me to convey the essence or capture the ethos of the region in one or two descriptors, what descriptors would I choose?

Let me restrict the discussion to India for the moment simply to retain the focus on the issue of interest. Would I say ‘India is a democracy’ and assume that the interlocutor would be able to imagine a fair picture? Or would I choose the descriptor ‘secular’ and hope that the image that would form after passing through the interlocutor’s mental filter would be an accurate one?

I believe there would be agreement that these would not be the best descriptors.  If I said instead that ‘India is hierarchical’ the interlocutor might infer a better sense of the foundations of Indian society. This would capture Dr. Ambedkar’s description that “by reason of our social and economic structure, [we] continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

If I added to that by saying that ‘India is religious’ and ‘India is dynastic,’ the interlocutor’s overlays on the foundation would also be accurate. Caste and religion based elections would corroborate the first claim and he/she could crosscheck the second by looking up a research site that showed, among other interesting facts, that every member of the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 has inherited his or her seat.

So far there is not much new in what I have said. All I have done is to buttress my claim that one would get the most accurate conception of India (indeed of South Asia as a whole) if one were to use the image of a religious hereditary monarchy as one’s starting point. The situation has evolved, of course, but this still remains the best starting point for the kind of interlocutor I introduced in the thought experiment. He/she would be able to refer to the knowledge of the religious hereditary monarchies of Europe and understand South Asia better than if the starting point had been a secular and democratic republic.

Anyone who knows South Asia well knows that the people’s representatives think of themselves as monarchs; that bureaucrats fawn over the representatives much as courtiers would fawn over monarchs; that well-off citizens respond to any attempt at accountability with the retort ‘Do you know who I am?’; and that the rest, the vast majority, think of themselves as subjects in a mai-baap culture, leaving their fate to the benevolence of the lords and at the mercy of a transcendent power.

The insight that is new to me, and that I credit to the article on mathematics, relates to an understanding of the path that we have followed since the departure of the British. For example, the database on dynastic politics mentioned above shows that only 18 percent of the members of parliament over 50 years in age had inherited their seats. The percentage rises to 47 for those below the age of 50 and to 100 percent for those below 30. So it is clear that the aristocratic system based on heredity that the British had displaced is reasserting itself – the Indian soil is pushing aside the British top-dressing; the primary phenomenon is reasserting its primacy over the epiphenomenon.

How do we understand this trajectory? In the paradigm suggested by the article on mathematics, we can think of India as a very complex system of equations. But every system of equations, no matter how complex, has a solution – in mathematical terms, a ‘root’ (of which there can be more than one). In the context of our discussion, the ‘root’ we are looking for is the true ethos, the best descriptor, of Indian society.

Let me illustrate this idea with the simplest of examples. Take the equation 3y = 21. This is easy to solve analytically; we know that the value of the unknown variable y that ‘solves’ this equation is 7.  In mathematical terms 7 is the root of the equation.

Now there are other, brute force, methods of solving equations because most equations are not this simple and are solved by machines using algorithms which are iterative processes following simple rules. Let me illustrate a brute force method for this simple equation to be employed by a dumb machine that had no prior idea of what the true root might be.

The machine can begin the solution process by choosing an arbitrary root, say 1. It will substitute 1 for y in the equation and derive the result 3 = 21. This is clearly not true. Next, the machine will note that 3 is less than 21 and infer that the value of y needs to be increased to make the two sides equal. In the next iteration, it will increment y by a fixed amount (say 0.5) and repeat the process. After a certain number of iterations the two sides of the equation would balance (21 = 21) and the machine would (triumphantly) flash the message that the true root of the equation was 7.

Now here is how I employ this paradigm. Let us keep thinking of India as the simple equation 3y = 21 (in reality it is better thought of as a complex system of non-linear equations but we don’t need to venture there). Before the British arrived everyone knew what the system was like (it was what Dr. Ambedkar characterized as the Indian ‘soil’). The ‘root’ of this system was 7. The British didn’t think much of this system; they wished it to be in the image of their ‘superior’ system – they wished to create an Indian system whose root were 1.

Now two things could have happened following the British transplant. Either the graft would have been so attractive that the system would have realigned around it and transformed into one whose  root was truly 1 (the top-dressing would take root); or the newly imposed solution would trend inevitably towards the true root (the soil would reassert itself and reject the graft). Clearly, the British had hoped for the first outcome. This was what Macaulay had in mind when he had said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The outcome was less certain in Dr. Ambedkar’s mind – he finished his thought, quoted above, with the question: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

The ‘life of contradictions’ had to resolve itself one way or the other. With the benefit of hindsight we should know quite clearly the direction in which it has evolved – the drift has been towards the status quo ante, most clearly in the smaller countries in South Asia and least obviously in India which has retained the form while shedding the content.

Needless to say, things never go back to exactly where they were after a system is subjected to a shock – this we know from another concept (hysteresis) in physics. The different countries in South Asia have all followed varying trajectories and moved at different speeds in the drift towards their roots depending upon intervening events, rates of economic growth, and the quality of leadership, etc.

But notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that a ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ remains a better descriptor of a country in South Asia than a ‘secular democratic republic’ – the reality is different from the appearance. This conclusion is not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with a religious hereditary hierarchy. In fact an argument could be made that the British epiphenomenon was harmful for South Asia; without it South Asia would have tended faster towards a political configuration that would have been much more organically rooted in its soil. Now we can only speculate on what that solution might have been like.

Postscript: A concrete example might make the argument clearer. In 1947, Mr. Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly his hope was that Pakistani society would realign itself around this secular, democratic core. Instead, it moved back fairly rapidly to its anti-secular, anti-democratic ethos. The type of liberal, secular gentlemen epitomized by Jinnah are now a dying breed and on the endangered list in Pakistan.

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Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs

June 13, 2010

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia.

Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout. (more…)

Dynasty and the Price of Politics: Do we really get the Leaders we Deserve?

January 4, 2008

By Dipankar Gupta

Just because we live in a democracy does not mean that we deserve the leaders we get. It is as unrealistic to believe that voters can choose an ideal candidate as it is for a consumer to get that ideal car, refrigerator, washing machine, or whatever. Till the mid 1980s our roads were clogged by historical throwbacks in the shape of Ambassador or Fiat 1100 cars. The car of our dreams, that ideal four wheeler, was nowhere on the horizon. Yet we bought, sold and drove these unwieldy monsters for only these junkyard machines were available in the market place. And there the matter ended.

The same principle holds in the political arena as well.

It is true we choose our leaders in a highly festive, often carnival like, atmosphere. In spite of the festoons and speeches, posters and ballots, charisma and chicanery, we are really constrained to voting for one or the other candidate that is up in the electoral market place. We cannot choose our ideal candidate for that person figures nowhere on the ballot paper.

Why is this so? There are frequent comments in the media and also among idle gossipers that good honest citizens should join politics and cleanse the democratic system of the accumulated filth of decades of administrative malpractice and misrule. Why don’t such people turn up? It is a democracy after all. Where are they hiding? And why? Don’t educated people have a sense of commitment to their country? 

True and false. We are in a democracy but this does not mean that anyone with a gold nugget for a heart can enter politics, walk on water and lead us to that promised land. Just as a monopolist raises the price of competition in a “free market” through advertising, among other things, politicians too raise the price of joining politics by introducing violence as a basic qualification. Anyone in this business should have the ability to control, inflict and resist violence. Without the attribute one cannot even think of taking the first baby step towards political activism.

It is just not money that makes the political mare go, but one needs a whip hand as well. This is particularly true of newly emerging democracies where the electoral spirit is willing but democratic institutions are weak. It is against this background that the rise of dynastic politics can be best understood.

Pakistan has a population of over 150 million, and India is famously a land of a billion people, and yet we constantly depend on certain families to provide us the political leadership. The reason clearly is not that we are lacking in drive and resources as individuals but we lack the wherewithal of violence to make the political grade. While India can boast of a million enterprises booming every year, this does not translate easily into the realm of politics for violence stands guard as the gate keeper to political fortunes.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto could have resulted in the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) going to somebody outside the family, but this was not to be. If Bilawal has taken over the reins in spite of being a political ingénue, it is simply because his family can control violence, take violence and ride on violence. This is true of other political families too in the region. How many can rise after a cruel assassination of a loved one to enter the political fray and risk everything? It has to be somebody who has lived alongside violence, seen it from close quarters and is not alarmed by its entry into their private spaces.

When we hear of a father grooming his daughter or a mother her son or a husband his wife it is really to inure the initiate from a natural repulsion towards violence. I have heard it being said, not just in the case of Benazir, that those who inherit the mantle from their dead ancestor or spouse, have lived, breathed and thought politics for the better part of their lives. This is certainly true. But it is not as if they learnt the craft of administration, the skills of statesmanship, diplomatic finesse, or whatever, but it is rather the ease with which they can handle violence and live alongside it, that qualifies them for the job.

It is not as if dynastic politics only happens at the top. Take a look at political satraps in India. From Shard Pawar, to Karunanidhi to Maulayam Singh Yadav, to Deve Gowda everywhere, in every corner of India, we see the familiar sight of fathers pushing sons and daughters, and husbands grooming wives, to take to politics. The principle of open competition, so that the best get into politics, is easily subverted because only certain people of exceptional social upbringing can handle violence as calmly as taking in air. A mother dies, the son steps in, a husband killed and the daughter walks in, is such a familiar routine that it must depend on some exceptional qualities that these people possess. It is certainly not brilliance, foresight, erudition or heart, but rather the experience of living with violence- facing it and using it- that separates political families from the rest. 

It does not matter then if Bilawal is still under age and cannot vote, he nevertheless qualifies to be the Chairman of the PPP. What sets him, and others like him apart, is his upbringing in a political family where violence is a familiar intruder forever leaning against the doorbell. This is a rare background and does not come easy. Politics is not for the faint hearted or the honest do-gooder. This is why we almost never get the leaders we deserve.

Every time a ghastly assassination happens at the top, such as that of Benazir, it raises by that much more the entry price into politics all the way down to the lowest functionary. This effectively shuts out the good guys and the field is left only for those who can handle violence with ease. That all this is done under a supposed “democratic” system should not blind us to the fact that the players out there in the middle are not our ideological representatives, or our inspiration points, but are patrons in command or in waiting. If violence is the key political qualification then law abiding citizens can only function from the sidelines, now casting their vote for one patron, now for another. The choice is really limited.

Patron politics is not incompatible with electoral politics. We can democratically choose our patrons and swing from one extreme to another in search of someone who will deliver and address some of our aspirations. By definition a patron is one who either breaks or lives on the edge of law, or else the person is of little use. What violence does is that it makes the system all the more susceptible to higher and higher levels of patronage politics. It does not matter if PPP comes in, or Nawaz Sharif, violence is now endemic in the system and assassinations such as that of Benazir Bhutto only reaffirms this tendency.

So every time a political leader is killed we must mourn not only for the departed patron but also for the further diminution of democratic politics in the substantive sense. Elections can still be held but it will be a contest between people who can control and inflict violence. To believe that after a leader has been brutally murdered there will be a lot of soul searching in the political realm is wishful thinking. We have heard it being said after Benazir was shot that Pakistan politicians are taking a long hard look at the role of violence in order to root it out of the political system. This was also said when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were killed.  Indeed, this is a standard, protocol announcement made by those who have survived the assassination or have been touched by it as political activists. But it is just the opposite that actually happens. 

The truth is that after every such incident the level of violence rises significantly as the price for entering politics. This is why we never get the leaders we deserve.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. From September to December 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This piece appeared first on January 3, 2008 in the Mail Today, New Delhi.

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