Peculiarities of Indian Democracy

Posted by sepoy on May 16, 2004 · 13 mins read

As Ananya exclaimed upon seeing the taped up paper sign, "Indeed!". I spend this, rather gorgeous, Saturday in a large assembly room in Classics listening to Arjun Appadurai, Uday Mehta, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Sudipta Kaviraj talk about various theoretical models for understanding the peculiar thing that is Indian Democracy. Of course, the cheer of the Election results illuminated every speaker. This conference, a brain-child of Sudipta Kaviraj, was intended for these various scholars to demonstrate ways in which Indian democracy differs from the western liberal democracy formats. And the fact that after a rather gruesome stretch in the 90s, Indian democracy had, once again, turned around to the left was tickling the old marxists red [i'll stop now]. The papers were extremely engaging and, surprisingly, on the theme. I have been to so many panels and presentations where only one or two papers even have anything in common, let alone a theme. However, these gentlemen [severe gender gap here] not only spoke to the theme but they did it in a clear manner. Speaking about a democracy that is 670 million strong (that is larger than the electorates of Japan, Western Europe and North America COMBINED!) is not easy. And summarizing that is even harder. However, let me try. All of the speakers were in conversation with the European Liberal Democracy tradition and were showing ways in which that tradition either falls short or completely fails in theoritizing the Indian case. The prime culprit seems to be modernity itself. That is, if one starts the examination from the point of view of that modernity spread out of Europe to create mini-modernities everywhere than one will start to point "failures" and "faults" in the modernities and democracies of the ex-colonies. However, if one resists that urge and is open to multiplicities of modernity then, one can emphasize differences without having them turn into deficiencies.
The most salient difference between Indian and Western Liberal Democracies is the conceptualization of group rights vs. individual rights. As Uday Mehta, nailed it, by quoting from the preamble to the Right to Freedom section of the Indian Constitution the clause:

(4) Nothing in sub-clause (c) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India or] public order or morality, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause[emphasis added]

That is, the rights of the group trump the rights of the individual. Hence, political mobilization in India turns on slights to groups rather than plights of the individual.

But let me go through each speaker.
Arjun Appdurai opened the conference with his paper Minorities and Democracies. I took a few classes with Arjun when he was here and let me just state, that the man has not improved his organization. His paper was really about violence against minorities but he made two main points with regard to democracy in India:
1. The relationships between majority and minority in a democracy and the ways in which that has a different dynamic in India: Appadurai stipulated two types of minorities from liberal thought, procedural minority and substantive minority. The first is a minority based on difference of opinion and the second is a minority based on social or cultural sets. Minorities in a democracy are seen as impure, as Nationalism ascribes purity and cohesiveness to the population within its conception. The majority, thence, operates in the framework of "fear of small numbers" - and when that majority turns predatory, as it did in Gujarat, it ascribes a majority of hidden, secret, outside to the minority it confronts (the suicide bomber becomes an Army of One standing in for Pakistan or Global Islam). Within Indian democracy, lies the paradox that there is no majority. Or as he put it, it's minorties all the way down. Hence, Indian democracy is about coalition politics as well as the transformation of different minorities from procedural to substantive.
2. The role of Elections, as a process, in Indian democracy: In India, minorities are not organizing along traditional lines such as parties. In practice, they seem to coalesce only around the Election. In this case, the "process" of Election itself becomes the rallying point and the impetus for the revolution. The minorities are then, akin to the peasant insurgents of Ranajit Guha, who come together to impact history and then disappear. Except, in this case, they re-convene regularly.

Parnab Bardhan's India Democracy, sui generis bored me to tears but that is because political scientists bore me to tears and he is a really good one. He did make some great observations:
- Unlike west, democracy came to India before industrialization and urbanization which influenced politics of mass mobilization itself.I
- In the West, democracy checks the power of the state, in India it enhances the power of the state.
- Legislature is a lame duck in India. The enaction of laws is not deemed important rather it is the application of laws and that is where opposition manifests itself through rallys, strikes and close-downs. Hence, India is a popular-mobilization democracy not a legislative democracy.
- This election was a referendum on India Shining Campaign - which was shoved in the have-not's face.
- Poll question: Does your vote matter? results in 1971 for muslims: 48%; and in 1996 for musims: 59%. Hence, individual have a positive sense of their impact on government. Something at odds with US electorate.
- Indian electorate is generally considered anti-government - again, in contrast to the US. Hence, incumbants get railroaded.

Sudipta Kaviraj's Is India Peculiarly Democratic? said that to understand Indian democracy, we have to tweak theories of modernity.
Western theories of modernity like Marx, Weber etc. consist of 2 assertions:
1. Something happens in 19th century Europe which increases the power of these societies to go invade other societies.
2. When the impulse of the West goes to East, what happens there is a model of what happened in the West. Sudipta is skeptical of the second assertion. Modernity is not singular but many many things: Rise of capitalization, centrality of State, Process of social individuation (atomization of society), secularization of society (1. separation of state from religion and 2. loss of religion in everyday culture). What we call modernization is a combination of all these things.
Rise of Modernity models:
1. Symmetrical Model: All these processes are functionally connected to each other. One helps the other. The child of the body grows into the body of the adult. In the beginning thy are small and weak but grow strong. This is the picture that informs Nehru's thinking - and 50's Marxists in India.
2. Asymmetrical Model: Capitalization emerged FIRST and THEN democracy arrived in Europe which was able to cohere around that. But, if democracy had predated, it may have hindered or even stop Capitalism.
Sudipta wants to propose an alternate theory of modernity that states that modernity starts in the West, travels to the colony but its shape and influence there depends on the actual temporal order in which it invests itself in the locale. Contrary to Max & Weber, the sequencing in modernity causes plural accounts in the colony. It is not an indentical process. By using this conceptual framework, Sudipta thinks we will not seek FAILURES of modernity or democracy in the differences between West and India. He, then, gave a list of Absences in Indian Democracy:
1. Democracy without Nationalism. Nation should be based on consistent language and religion (Eurpoean form) but Nehru and Ambedkar did not go towards that nationalism. This allowed the regional nationalism to actually flower within the nation-state. Sudipta is Bengali first and THEN indian and that is A-OK.
2. Democracy without Liberalism: The language of liberalism was not there before institutions of liberalism. Early development of liberal thought but it was overwhelmed by the Gandhian and Socialist traditions. Before the country became democratic, it lost the language of liberalism. How does Democracy function without liberal institution?
3. Democracy without Capitalism
4. Democracy without Prosperity
5. Democracy Without Literacy
6. Democracy Without Individuation: Language of Rights has emerged powerfully. In the Nehru period, that language produced a rash of court cases. Now, that has changed to assertions of group rights.
7. Democracy Without Secularization
In fact, Nehru was never trying to re-enact the Western Enlightenment as-is in India even though he used the conceptual tools from that sphere.
During the discussion, Shelly Pollock asked a great question:
If British colonialism succeeded in giving India democracy, then wouldn't that substantiate the neo-con project of giving democracy to Iraq?
Kaviraj said he was opposed to the idea of looking at colonialism simply as an oppressive force because there was also an enchantment and emulation with the colonial by the natives. The REAL origin of democracy in INDIA was the STRUGGLE AGAINST THE EMPIRE. That is, the Indians fought the British on their own turf of sloppy democracy which the British had implemented in India. Hence, Democracy was a LEARNED behavior in India and not a gift of Colonialism.

This point was borne out by Uday Mehta's Democracy and the Problem of History which was my favorite paper of the conference. He theorized that the Partition was not the rupture but the Constitution of India was. In the American history, which sees the Revolutionary War as the break from colonialism and the Constitution writing in Philadelphia as normative of the new democracy. However, in India's case, after the Partition, nothing changed. It was a simple transfer - the bureaucracy, mastheads, operations, societal framework remained the same as before August - still under the rules of India Act of 1935. A third of India was under princely rule. It was the Constitution that heralded the rupture from the past:
- by providing the only way to conceptualize the universal - An Indian - instead of caste, religion or ethnicity.
- by casting history under the social science rubric - the problem of caste became analagous to the problem of building dams.

Now, I want to tell you what Dipesh Chakrabarty had to say in his Public Violence in/and Democracy but
a. i am tired.
b. i actually have to think about that.
And since, the proceedings of the conference will be published, i have to get this right.


kuffir | June 18, 2005

whew! a year afer the event/revolution i am surprised to learn it meant so many things to certain eggheads over there{i have always believed watching cricket on television is better than sweating it out at the stadium and it looks like i was right).let me put forward what i think the left over(ha ha}here thinks of what the 'people'were thinking when they voted: 'jobs'(save the chosen race of public sector employees and their right not to work}'food'(think up elaborate schemes that seduce rather than the satiate the great unfed so that they participate in rallies denouncing wb, imf, globalisation,imperialism etc.,)'social security'(coerce the govt to pay up interest at rates higher than what the banks pay their depositors on pension/provident fund savings to a ridiculously overprivileged few chosen indians}'reforms'(stop them so that the country can go back to where it was earlier so the eggheads can think up a more level debating field where you wouldn't have to consider certain ,obvious reform-aided areas of prosperity) 'new government'(as large as the old one used to be}.

Donkey Hottie | May 17, 2004

Who Wants to Get Hitched? I've registered my concerns over marriage that does not discriminate based on gender, but, all the same, today should be a pretty good day to party, especially in Cambridge. I've worried for a while that, with Bowers in the trashcan,...

Vaibhav | June 13, 2006

what the total number of voters in indian democracy?