Democracy in India: Twenty Years After (Part II)
The recent assembly elections may mark a new watershed in Indian politics. It shows the ineffectiveness of ‘dynastic charisma’ as an election gimmick and a possible shift away from Mandalization to Sanskritization and performance. Navaratna Rajaram writes more…
India is a post-colonial state, even a Nehruvian state, is one of Mr. Khilnani’s central themes in his book The Idea of India. This state has existed only since 1947, with frontiers and institutions largely as the British had left them. Even the Indian Constitution owes much to the 1935 Government of India Act. As he observes, the Indian experience has shown that democracy is compatible with Asian cultures— at least with the Indian culture. At least some of the credit should go to the hierarchical power sharing built into caste. After all, every state is a hierarchical system or it is anarchy.
It is now some 20 years since Naipaul and Khilnani penned their studies of India. In that time there have been major developments in the national scene, notably the continuing downward spiral of the Congress (predicted by Mr. Khilnani); the return to power of the Congress at the head of the coalition in the UPA government seems to be a temporary reprieve. The Congress fortunes were artificially boosted by the performance in two southern states— Congress in Andhra Pradesh and its ally DMK in Tamil Nadu. This now is in decline, especially in Tamil Nadu.
A more significant development is the long term trend in caste politics. Recent elections including the just concluded state elections in U.P., Punjab and others suggest that voting patterns no longer strictly follow caste patterns. Or we should perhaps say that caste has changed in response to the democratic experience and no longer fits into the pattern prescribed by vote bank calculus.
Shortly before his death in 1999, sociologist M.N. Srinivas edited a book he called Caste: Its twentieth century avatar. In a lengthy introduction Srinivas, India’s greatest sociologist and the foremost student of the role of caste in society observed that caste is a dynamic system and should not be treated as fixed for all time. But this was how caste and Hindu society in general were portrayed and analyzed by Western scholars and Indians who took their cue from them. A feature of the post-Nehru and post-Indira era was the emergence of caste and community based politics and political parties. This was captured by Srinivas in the phrase ‘vote bank’— a term he coined in 1955. As C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) noted, caste politics was a Congress creation.
In all this, there was an implicit assumption that caste and community loyalties remain frozen and can always be tapped for votes. An often ignored fact is that caste parties like the SP and the BSP only capitalized on the caste and community based political paradigm (or vote bank politics) introduced and institutionalized by the Congress. They did not innovate it. C. Rajagoplachari (Rajaji), a critic of Nehru and a true liberal, had observed as far back as 1963:
“What the Congress Party does speaks far louder than its preaching. Communalism is at the root of all the decisions of the Congress Party… Instead of allowing and encouraging a natural synthesis of castes and communities in a developing continent, the coming together is directed to be brought about through political affiliation to Congress and through that means alone. The result is instead of casteism disappearing, a new and worse caste has been created— the caste of the ruling party.”
This is what Professor Khilnani also notes—winning elections in pursuit of power became the be-all and end-all of the Congress leadership, everything else became secondary. This was a natural corollary of Nehru’s idea of nationalism as democratic expression through elections. Rajaji was remarkably prescient when he predicted: “…this new caste has come to be worse type of the old feudal tyrannies and caste dominations. Corruption and disintegration are the natural corollaries of this domination of a new caste.” Nehru’s idea of the nation as a democratic state must bear a share for this.
Even Rajaji, for all his vision and experience failed to foresee the dominance of the party and the nation not by a new caste but a nouveau riche family headed by a European woman with no record of service to the nation, or experience in public life and her feudal court. Nehru’s nationalism was buried for good when the Congress in 1998 surrendered itself and the nation to Sonia Gandhi. For the moment, she had won the “contest for the ownership of the state” as Khilnani puts it, and all the perks and privileges that go with it while giving little in return. Narrowing nationalism to mean democratic pursuit of power led to this subversion of democracy aided by the accident of marriage.
How would Nehru have reacted to this? We have a pointer. When the last Maharaja of Holkar died, Nehru refused to allow his son to succeed to the largely ceremonial title because his mother was an American. Was this because Nehru was a xenophobic chauvinist as those questioning Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s fitness for constitutional office have been called? Ever since Mrs. Sonia Gandhi gained control of the government in 2004, corruption has indeed increased manifold. The degradation of Nehru’s India reached a new depth when the ‘distinguished economist’ Manmohan Singh used his position as prime minister to bailout Mrs. Gandhi’s business associate, the Italian swindler Ottavio Quattrocchi.
Another development is the bankruptcy of Nehruvian secularism to the point it is now all but a dirty word. Nehru himself started the debasement by introducing the Haj Bill in 1959 for providing financial subsidies to Muslims going on Haj Pilgrimage. (The idea of Haj subsidy goes against the principle of secularism as well as the teachings of Islam.) During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi introduced the word ‘secularism’ into the Indian Constitution without defining it. Ever since that sorry day, ‘secularism’ has been invoked in the service of vote bank politics— to justify the unjustifiable (like the betrayal of Shah Bano and the abandonment of victims of atrocities in the name of ‘personal law’ like Imrana who was forced to live as the second wife of her rapist father-in-law.) At the same time, the nightmare scenario of communal polarization feared by Mr. Khalnani in his 2003 Introduction has not come to pass. On the other hand, an unusual degree of communal harmony has prevailed even in the face of attacks by Islamic terrorists on Indian sites, including temples in Varanasi and Ahmedabad.
Urbanization and better communications like satellite TV and mobile telephones are bringing about rapid changes in caste and its role in society. The results of the last several elections—not just the latest—suggest that voters are looking beyond caste in selecting leaders. In 2007, Mayavati came to power in U.P. on the back of a caste coalition. But her failure to rise above caste considerations and poor performance resulted in a resounding defeat five years later. The victorious leader, the 37 year-old Akhilesh Yadav appealed to all constituencies and emphasized effective governance and development.
If recent results are any indication, the days of the Congress party are numbered. The not-so-youthful Crown Prince Rahul Gandhi has shown himself to be singularly inept and unequal to the task of reviving the party’s fortunes, but no alternative is in sight. Family monopoly has come back to haunt the party. As the U.P. election was getting close, a comedy of errors was enacted with Rahul’s sister Priyanka accompanied by her little children hitting the campaign trail soon followed by her husband Robert Vadra. Neither had any experience in public life but felt qualified because of the family connection. Anywhere else it would be called nepotism but the Indian media described it as dynastic charisma. But the Indian voter who showed he was capable of looking beyond caste showed himself capable of seeing through dynastic pretensions also. You cannot fool all the people all the time.
Only time will tell whether this is a harbinger of things to come. Caste has two faces— social and political. As India becomes increasingly urbanized, and urban ideas make their way into the villages, the social aspect of caste may be diffused by economic and educational developments. This is already happening among educated urbanites. Politically, caste may not altogether disappear but may continue to serve in its age old role of ensuring that no one group becomes oppressive by cornering all the resources. In short, it brings us back to Srinivas’s observation that caste is an essential feature of Indian society, but not something frozen in time or space.
An important concept that Srinivas introduced was Sanskritization. By this he meant all sections of society seek status and upward mobility by imitating elite groups. This is evident in urban areas, especially in areas containing new immigrants from rural areas, but television and mobile phones may begin to see the phenomenon work in rural areas as well.
Future: broadening the horizons of political thought
As Professor Khilnani rightly points out the sustainability of India’s democracy rests on its ability to preserve its internal diversity and assimilate new ideas. This has never been in doubt going back to Vedic times. Threats to diversity of societies have come only from exclusivist ideologies like Christianity (in Goa), Islam and Marxism and in whatever garb operating in the guise of ‘universalism’. (In our own time, we need look no further than Tibet, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)
He also remarks that nationalism and national identity cannot be confined to the borders of India, and Indians should accept the reality that Western political idiom and methodology will be applied to non-Western societies as well including India. Mr. Khilnani goes on to observe: “It has been a far from universally happy experience. But neither side can escape its consequences. The future of Western political theories will be decided outside the West. And in deciding that future, the experience of India will loom large.” He also notes that in questions relating to Indian identity “categories and terms of Western political thought are essential to all judgments. This is not out of a conviction that the ideas of Western politics themselves represent the summit of human thought and feeling.”
Of course not, and one is grateful for the acknowledgement. The twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first are littered with the wreckage of applying Western political thought to non-Western societies— from Vietnam to Iraq. This raises an important question: is Western political thought—and humanities in general—capable of shedding its insularity by reaching out to pluralistic traditions— say Vedantic and Confucian?
As seen by a non-specialist, the academic discipline devoted to their study will have little to show until Western political thinkers acquire the humility to acknowledge their errors and change if not discard their theories as workers in the exact sciences (like this writer) are forced to do. Since the social sciences lack the built-in checks and balances of the exact sciences, we only know when they are wrong after the damage is done— and this damage can be monumental as in Vietnam and Iraq later. There is no testing their theories in the laboratory. Even after the catastrophe, as in Vietnam, there is more heat than light.
Simply acknowledging error like Robert McNamara’s mea culpa after Vietnam is of no value; the issue is the method not the man. Unless there is a mechanism for making such lessons of history integral part of the discipline itself, there is no assurance that the folly will not be repeated in another place and time— as it was in Iraq. This means there will be no progress, but only ad-hoc interpretations and misinterpretations until they are forgotten in a generation and a new adventure in folly is embarked upon.
The eerie similarity between the so-called Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident (August 4, 1964) that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the more recent fabrication of evidence for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as pretext for attacking Iraq does not inspire confidence either in the judgment of political thinkers or the soundness of their theories. As far back as 1995, Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap told his American counterpart Robert McNamara that the now infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident never happened.
This is not the full story, for doubts were expressed within hours of the claim of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf. These came from eyewitnesses like U.S. naval officers and a reconnaissance pilot, and were reported to the Defense Secretary McNamara. Even President Lyndon Johnson admitted as early as 1965 that there may have been no attacks on U.S. ships. But that did not stop the escalation of the war. So, what was driving it? A political doctrine called the ‘Domino Effect’; it held that the fall of one country to the Communists would inevitably lead to the fall of its neighbor to Communism and so on. There was never any evidence, much less proof.
If anything, the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union followed by its collapse in the neighboring countries can be used to argue a Reverse Domino Effect. This has happened before— after Napoleon in the nineteenth century and the fall of the Third Reich in the twentieth. Can we build a theory of action and reaction based on these analogies— that every domino effect is followed by a reverse domino effect? Or how about the latest received wisdom— Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’? Is there any way of testing it? Are civilizations like billiard balls— indistinguishable and all acting and reacting in the same way?
Such fatuous arguments are not limited to political science. The world is yet to recover from the recent global financial collapse. It was entirely man-made; its dangers were predictable and predicted, but economists went ahead with their creations anyway, giving themselves ‘Nobel Prizes’ even as they ruined national economies (and lives). The paradox is that the same people who were responsible for the catastrophe continue to be in charge of the global financial system.
This is incomprehensible to a student of the exact sciences (like this writer). No scientist could maintain his or her standing after a blunder of such magnitude. Also worth noting is the fact that a scientific error rarely has global consequences on this scale. Even space disasters, like those involving the Challenger and Columbia later are purely local events. They are thoroughly investigated and remedial steps are taken. These may not be perfect but at least the awareness is there. (This is based on this writer’s personal experience.)
This seems rarely to happen in the social sciences. There is some breast beating, but soon it is business as usual. Discredited ideas are allowed to continue until history in the form of the same folly is repeated. Are there to be no corrective mechanisms built into the system as we have in the exact sciences? A basic question that we must be prepared to face is— can the humanities ever be made free of human folly?