May 24, 2010
The Dance of Indian Democracy
By Namit Arora
The Republic of India began life as an unlikely nation. Gaining independence in 1947, India adopted a democratic form of governance, a liberal constitution, and secular public institutions. None of these sprang from a living indigenous tradition. Rather, they were chosen by an elite class of Indians that had developed a taste for them via its exposure to the West, and had even acquired some experience in representative self-rule in the closing decades of the British Raj. Many observers thought the experiment was doomed to failure. Among them was the stodgy imperialist Winston Churchill, who felt that if the British left, India would ‘fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.’ Indians were unfit to govern themselves, and needed ‘the sober and resolute forces of the British Empire.’
Doubters abounded for decades after independence. Unlike so many post-colonial nations, including those in South Asia, the continued existence of democracy in India—its fair elections and peaceful transfers of power—puzzled not just the lay observers, but it also became, according to historian Ramachandra Guha,
an anomaly for academic political science … That India ‘could sustain democratic institutions seems, on the face of it, highly improbable,’ wrote the distinguished political scientist Robert Dahl, adding: ‘It lacks all the favorable conditions.’ ‘India has a well-established reputation for violating social scientific generalizations,’ wrote another American scholar, adding, ‘Nonetheless, the findings of this article furnish grounds for skepticism regarding the viability of democracy in India.’ 
The naysayers rightly saw democracy as an outgrowth of a particular historical experience in the West, rooted in a consciousness we now call modernity. They spoke of the conditions thought to be necessary for the flourishing of democracy: an egalitarian social order, an ethos of individualism, and a culture of secular politics and pluralist tolerance. India had practically the opposite: a deeply hierarchical social order, subservience of the individual to family and community, and a culture of political quietism, though it did have pluralist tolerance (more on this later). Only a tiny class of Indians saw themselves as citizens of a nation-state, or could lay claim to political participation. Nor had the masses agitated to be rid of the hundreds of kings in as many princely states of British India, though discontent did exist in pockets. Indians were notoriously diverse, with identities spanning caste, class, region, custom, language, religion, and more, all impediments to a shared ideal of citizenship. Indeed, how was democracy expected to survive in such inhospitable terrain?
Democracy, With Reservations
One Indian who anticipated these contradictions and worried about them was Dr. BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution. In his essay, Caste, Class and Democracy, Ambedkar astutely argued that once the British left, an Indian elite from the upper castes would simply step into their place. The right to universal adult suffrage alone wouldn’t make India a democracy—except in a narrowly technical sense—if the ‘servile classes’ in this deeply stratified society found no political representation. Ambedkar noted that the Indian political establishment, almost exclusively from the upper castes, despised the ‘untouchables’, and would neither strive to represent their interests, nor put up ‘untouchable’ candidates. Instead, they would hog all the power and resources and serve their own class interests. Ambedkar believed that ‘self-government and democracy become real not when a Constitution based on adult suffrage comes into existence but when the governing class loses its power to govern.’
Ambedkar realized that the Indian soil had to be fertilized to make democracy bloom. The ‘people’ in its definition—of the people, by the people, for the people—had to mean all people, not just the privileged classes. Further, what was needed for a healthy democracy was not just political equality but also substantial social and economic equality. Indeed, the former was not achievable without the latter. With an eye to a fair deal and a level playing field for the ‘servile classes’, to which he himself belonged, Ambedkar argued for reservations—a form of affirmative action—in public institutions, government jobs, and even in central and state legislatures.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, is often and with good reason held up as a great liberal democrat, who did a lot to inculcate and entrench democratic impulses in India. In his own words, he was ‘eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity.’ Nehru was, however, opposed to the idea of reservations. He saw them as divisive—perhaps led by the view that the existence of separate Hindu and Muslim electorates was partly to blame for the bloody Partition. But he had other grounds to resist them as well. In 1961, he wrote:
I dislike any kind of reservations ... I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country. The moment we encourage the second rate, we are lost. … [I]f we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second rate or third rate. … This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let us help the backward groups by all means but never at the cost of efficiency.
Surely not Chacha Nehru's finest sentiment. A decade earlier, however, he had agreed to reservations for the ‘untouchables’ and the tribal peoples, referred to in the Constitution as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), respectively. They made up nearly a quarter of the population and the Constitution reserved for them 22.5% of the seats in the central and state legislatures. Reservation for Muslims and women was debated but rejected, a tacit acknowledgement that the plight of the outcastes and the tribals was uniquely bad. Beaten down and lacking self-confidence, the SC/STs now had a practical means of advancing themselves. Their political consciousness grew hand in hand with them realizing the power of the vote and their special rights under the Constitution.
A striking feature of the Indian democratic experiment has been the increasing use of reservations to achieve greater social justice and equality of opportunity. Much of this has occurred due to the shifting balance of power across demographics. Since the 1950s, political power has been shifting away from upper caste Hindus to the rest, who are far more numerous. From a society where politics once held a marginal public role, India has become an intensely political society. By the 1970s, for instance, many Shudra castes—located above the outcastes—had gained enough economic and political clout to become a powerful ‘vote bank’. They now aspired to a larger share of administrative and educational opportunities, where they were underrepresented. Some of the largest and best-organized Shudra castes were the ‘Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Jats in Haryana and Punjab, Marathas in Maharashtra, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, and Gounders in Tamil Nadu.’ 
An artifact of this social change was the Mandal commission of 1979, tasked to ‘identify the socially or educationally backward’ communities of India. These were designated Other Backward Classes (OBC), who the commission estimated to be 52% of the population, including many socially backward Muslim groups. Its affirmative action policy recommendations had to wait until 1990 to be turned into law by the courageous Prime Minister VP Singh. Since then, India has reserved 27% of all government jobs and college admissions for the OBCs (but nothing in the legislatures, unlike for SC/STs). Notably, this quota applies only to recruitment, not to promotions, and poorer candidates are to be preferred. The quota also excludes a ‘creamy layer’ of the OBC community that has done well for itself and no longer deserves reservation. A performance review expected in a decade might propose adjustments. Combined with the 22.5% quota for SC/ST, reservations in government jobs and college admissions rose to nearly 50%. Not surprisingly, this provoked a backlash from upper caste minorities, who saw their opportunities shrink.
The Reservations Debate
In recent years, India has seen the entire gamut of critiques against reservations—from shrill takes on ‘merit’ and ‘reverse discrimination’, to more reasonable but often specious concerns. The latter include at least the following: (a) critiques that decry the rise of divisive identity politics based on affiliations of caste and religion. But the fact is that such politics reflects serious divisions that do already exist, and won’t just disappear if ignored. It is the penchant of the privileged to speak of open competition and difference-blind policies as virtues. (b) Others worry that considerations of ‘caste good’ are swamping those of ‘common good’, but did the latter ever exist? Won’t considerations of ‘caste good’ remain paramount as long as there is casteist discrimination? (c) Many critics like Sunil Khilnani lament that reservations have become an entitlement, rather than a temporary ‘stimulus package’ that needs periodic adjustments.  They wonder that when reservations have achieved the desired effect of ‘equalization of castes’, will the politicians have the wisdom and the courage to roll them back? This worry about the need for exit criteria is quite legitimate but hardly a good reason to oppose reservations; more often, this worry is a symptom of upper class conservatism and desire to preserve the status quo. (d) Another critique of reservations calls it a mostly symbolic politics of vote banks that has masked genuine debate over reform and development. According to political theorist Bhikhu Parekh,
[s]ocial justice has come to be defined almost exclusively in terms of reservations, and the massive programme of redistribution needed to tackle the deep roots of historically accumulated disadvantages has been marginalized. Rather than fight for such a programme, the scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, and OBC representatives in powerful positions use their constituents as a vote bank to promote their own careers. 
If Parekh is right, we have a real problem and a failure of the Indian political imagination. But this is not a critique of reservations per se. After all, the pursuit of social justice need not be zero-sum. ‘On the contrary, it can be argued that: "the pursuit of justice in one dimension helps build a broader political culture that supports struggles for justice in other dimensions"’. In other words, we can pursue reservations for historically disadvantaged groups as well as focus on redistributive socioeconomic justice by other means.
Supporters of reservations, including myself, argue that despite its many genuine problems, instances of misuse, and the self-serving corruption of some of its beneficiaries (corruption abounds in the upper castes too), reservations are still, on balance, a valuable instrument of social justice, without which India will not realize the promise of democracy in any case. It may have added to the raucous unsettledness of the Indian polity, but it has also enabled more and more people from hitherto marginalized groups to participate in and fight for their idea of India. This is far more desirable than the reverse, and reservation remains an effective tool for redressing still-deep inequities and discrimination that persist along group identities.
In the same spirit, we should also applaud the latest move to reserve for women 33% of the seats in the parliament and state legislatures, where their numbers have stubbornly hovered near or below 10%, though many (mostly upper class) women have made it to the very top.  This is especially significant because a great many problems in India arguably spring from the continued disempowerment of women. Curiously enough, the women’s reservation bill has extensive support from upper caste elites. One wonders why their vehemence against caste-based reservations does not extend to gender-based reservations. After all, both caste and gender are sources of disadvantage in Indian society. Is it because sisters and daughters in their midst help them overcome their empathy deficit? Or perhaps they too are being nakedly calculating on the benefits the bill holds out for them? In any case, their inconsistent response reeks of hypocrisy.
However, to Parekh’s point, it is very important that Indians see reservations as only one in a bag of tricks to achieve greater social and economic equality. The stubborn persistence of inequalities that derive from illiteracy, hunger and malnutrition, lack of healthcare and sanitation, uneven economic development, and lax law enforcement suggests that India is nowhere close to realizing Ambedkar’s inspiring vision of democracy.
The Subsoil of Indian Democracy
Even today, India lacks the classic ingredients of modernity said to be necessary for democracy, nor is India about to acquire them in a hurry. How indeed has democracy survived in India? What aspects of Indian culture made it hospitable to democracy? I think two factors soar above all others: pluralist tolerance and cultural diversity.
Amartya Sen has called the Indian flavor of tolerance swikriti, or ‘"acceptance", in particular the acknowledgement that [others] are entitled to lead their own lives.’  Part of this I think comes from the presence of thousands of self-absorbed castes, each with its customary way of life; another part comes from India’s long history of cultural syncretism that has furthered many tolerant, pacifist, and private faiths, often alongside a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic detachment from the world. Swikriti is different from the tolerance of modernity, which has its roots in egalitarian individualism. Swikriti also extended to inoffensive political systems that came along, such as democracy. As long as political power didn’t oppress, it was of marginal concern: rulers could come and go, dynasties rise and fall. To all but an elite class, democracy too began as yet another political experiment in a faraway city, later permeating the countryside and drawing sustenance from swikriti.
No less crucial was the extraordinary diversity of the newly independent republic. What, after all, did denizens of Ladakh or Mizoram have in common with natives of Kutch or Coorg? As Indian history shows, cultural diversity, almost by definition, thwarts singular narratives of being, and acts as a formidable bulwark against political and religious fundamentalism. With so many competing claims and ways of life in India, secular democracy turned out to be particularly well suited as a practical means of resolving conflicts among various communities.
Swikriti and cultural diversity appear to be receding in India, not the least due to the intensifying competition for resources, rising nationalism, and economic globalization. But a sense of shared identity has also emerged, forged by things like cricket, movies, television, railways, and the State. Many progressive, modernizing ideas increasingly penetrate Indian culture and civil society. Six decades later, a different question confronts us: Is India becoming a sicker or healthier democracy?
1. Ancient India did have many democratic republics. See Steve Muhlberger, Democracy in Ancient India, 1998.
2. Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi, Harper Perennial, 2007, p 598.
3. BR Ambedkar, The Essential Writings of BR Ambedkar, Oxford India Paperbacks, pp. 132-148.
4. Guha, p 598.
5. Sunil Khilnani, From Representative Democracy, Live Mint, April 2010.
6. Bidyut Chakrabarty, Indian Politics and Society Since Independence, Routledge, p 71. This quote is by Bhikhu Parekh, quoted by Bidyut Chakrabarty.
7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Citizenship, April 2010.
8. A more progressive bill would have accounted for the fact that women in India are not a unified group, and belong to groups with vastly different levels of privilege.
9. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p 35.
1. Courtesy Financial Times (source).
2. Voters smile and show their ink-marked fingers after casting their ballots at a polling station at Pargi village, 120 km (75 miles) west of the southern Indian city of Hyderabad April 16, 2009 (REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder) - source .
3. BR Ambedkar.
4. Nehru smoking with Edwina Mountbatten.
5. Election poster showing Indira Gandhi (source).
6. Prime Minister VP Singh, c. 1990
7. A man displays the indelible ink mark on his index finger after casting his vote, outside a polling station in Sonapur village, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Gauhati, India, Thursday, April 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath) - source
8. A child looks on as Bahujan Samaj Party supporters listen to party president Mayawati at an election rally in Allahabad, India, Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) - source
9. A Muslim woman displays the ink mark on her finger after casting her votes in Rae Bareli, India, Thursday, April 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) - source
More writing by Namit Arora?
Posted by Namit Arora at 12:10 AM | Permalink