[WSMDiscuss] Democracy Dialogues - New Socialist Initiative - Inaugural Lecture by Prof Suhas Palshikar
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Thu Jul 16 02:49:51 CEST 2020
TRAJECTORY OF INDIA’S DEMOCRACY AND CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES : PROF SUHAS
[*Inaugural Lecture of ‘Democracy Dialogues’ Series ( Webinar)*
*Organised by New Socialist Initiative, 12 th July 2020]*
Join us on facebook.com/newsocialistinitiative.nsi for further updates
( Prof Suhas Palshikar, Chief Editor, Studies in Indian Politics and
Co-director, Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,
delivered the inaugural lecture in the ‘Democracy Dialogues’ Series
initiated by New Socialist Initiative.
In this lecture he attempted to trace the roots of the current moment of
India’s democracy in the overall global journey of democracy, the
extra-ordinarily ambitious and yet problematic foundational moment of
Indian democracy and the many diversions India’s democracy has taken over
time. He argued that unimaginative handling of the extra-ordinary ambition
and Statist understanding of the ‘power-democracy’ dialectic formed the
basis for easy distortions of democratic practice and that while populism
and majoritarianism are the current challenges, they are by no means only
special to the present and therefore, even as critique and
course-correction of present political crisis is urgently required, a more
long-term view of the trajectory of Indian democracy is necessary.
Here follows a detailed summary of his presentation prepared by Dr Sanjay
In his talk Prof Suhas Palshikar located the current state of democracy in
India in a comprehensive framework which encompassed both the general
characteristics of democracy, as well as the specific history and character
of democracy in India. This provided a deeper understanding of the reasons
for the current state of democracy in the country.
There is a tendency to see democracy as a linear progression. In reality,
we see ups and downs, and there is no guarantee that if once established,
democracy will continue. Democracy requires continuous willed action from
its practitioners. This is so because the idea and practice of democracy
have internal tension. There are three nodes of this tension. (i) Who are
the demos, i.e. the people? This may appear straightforward, but in
practice, the constitution of demos also involves exclusions. We saw how
migrant workers were simply excluded from the ‘demos’ of the cities in the
recent pandemic. People at the margins, and minorities can suffer threat of
exclusion by the workings of the democracy itself. (ii) What do the demos
do? While initiative and action by the people is one pole of this tension,
the other is the demand of obedience, at least in some form, by all
governments. This is the tension between active and passive citizenship.
(iii) The third internal tension comes from the ordering principle. This
can be seen in the rights of citizens versus ‘law and order’ demands of the
In the theory of democracy it is widely recognised that the Indian
democracy has passed through a different path than the north Atlantic
region. There the idea of a free individual came first through struggles
against feudalism. And then, the people got constituted from individuals.
In India this ordering appears reversed. Here, the people were first
constituted as a nation during the freedom struggle. Another point of
difference between the experience of democracy in India from elsewhere is
how it has tried to deal with social diversity. The phrase ‘unity in
diversity’ in the context of Indian experience is actually misleading.
Retaining diversity while uniting is closer to reality. This means that in
order to be an India you do not have to give up any other identity. This
should be compared with experiences in Europe and the US. In the former the
process of formation of the people resulted in a nuclear homogeneity. In
the later, waves of migration and assimilation led to a pluralising
homogeneity, as given by the ‘melting pot’ image.
The assertion of democracy in Indian freedom struggle and constitution was
a challenge and an ambition. This is what Ambedkar says in his final
address to the drafting committee. The architecture for a new India was
created in the constitution, but the challenge was to bring it into
reality. Unfortunately, the establishment of formal democracy was
accompanied by a schizophrenia about democracy. There was more focus on
creating state as a major apparatus under a set of assumptions which at
best be called naïve. Masses were effectively demobilised. The result was a
docile democracy. Our democracy became leadership centric, in which people
were expected to follow cue from the leader. Hence, the first phase of
post-independence democracy had hidden within it a number of problems.
First was the twin problem of violence. There was a failure to understand
and appropriately respond to private organised violence. On the other side
was the use of violence by the state. With time, state actually became more
and more violent. The second problem was the failure to integrate the most
marginalised; the SCs, the STs and minorities. The third problem continuing
from that period is our failure to make institutions which are both
democratic and efficient. Hence, our institutional structure often fails
the promise of democracy as well as effective governance.
It is best to come to the current state of Indian democracy through four
decadal challenges to democracy. We are still living in the shadow of these
challenges. These are 1. the Emergency in 1975, 2. pogrom of Sikhs in 1984,
3. demolition of Babri mosque, and 4. organised violence against Muslims in
Gujarat 2002. The perpetrators of the Emergency were punished in 1977
elections. However, nothing was learnt from that experience
institutionally. That is, our institutions did not develop any inherent
opposition to unconstitutional authoritarianism and centralisation of state
authority. For the other three decadal challenges, the perpetrators were
not even punished. Hence there is no disincentive for doing such crimes.
If we go back to the politics 1980s and 1990s to understand where we are
today, it was both a period expansion of democracy, while also its
narrowing down. Yogendra Yadav, Christopher Jaffrelot and Sajay Kumar have
described the former as a democratic upsurge. Excluded groups like
minorities, women, STs and Dalits started voting in large numbers. Politics
became more competitive, and there was a change in the social basis of
political elites. A political consensus emerged for affirmative action for
socially marginalised. However, there was also a narrowing down of the
agenda of politics and rigging of political menu. When more and more
marginalised sections begin participating in democracy, the democratic
politics got depoliticised. It is in this period that the media starts
setting the agenda, so that even politicians begin to talk the agenda set
A consensus among dominant political players emerged on the three Ms,
namely Mandal, Masjid and Market. The Mandal question disappears in
1993-94, as all players accept affirmative action. On the so-called
masjid-mandir controversy there is no contrarian position in Indian
politics. The Supreme Court has only given legal sanction to a political
consensus. Regarding Market, all parties, including the Left in West Bengal
accede to its demands.
The two longstanding challenges continued to be ignored. First is the
challenge of creating a strong individual with a set of rights. The second
is a commitment to India’s diversity. Failures on these two issues have
made it only easy for current rulers.
Eight structural features characterise the contemporary state of politics
in India. 1. unprecedented centralisation and personalisation of state
authority. In the light of what is happening today, what Indira Gandhi did
appears amateurish. 2. decay of federal politics, 3. unprecedented
abdication of its role by the judiciary. ADM Jabalpur at least had to make
an attempt to justify its abdication. Not even a justification is given for
the current abdication. 4. beginning of the politicisaiton of armed forces,
5 misuse of investigative agencies, 6 complete subordination of the entire
bureaucracy, 7 Irrelevance of political parties, and 8. closure of all
Given these structural elements, the current moment is nor a routine
diversion. It should be seen as a moment of hijack of democracy. We also
need to appreciate two processes, which give strength to these structural
elements. These two processes are (a) populism and (b) majoritarianism.
Indira Gandhi was also called populist, populist leaders were always there.
The three elements of populism are (a) an idea of people as an anti
something, which can be anti elite, or anti-minority, (b) a moralistic idea
of politics; seeing it as a war between good and bad, so that your
adversary is not just a competitor but a bad element who needs to be
eliminated, and (c) disregard of institutions.
Survey of popular political opinions by Lokniti and Azim Premji University
throw some interesting and disturbing results. There is an attraction for
populism, but this attraction is not overwhelming. In fact populism is not
so much attractive to people, as it is to politicians.
Majoritarianism is always an issue in elections, because elections are one
way to legitimise a majority. Majoritarianism reduces democracy to
electoral politics. Popular opinion data regarding majoritarianism is
worrying. When it is asked if the will of the majority community should be
accepted, then one person in three agreed in 2000. By 2015 this proportion
had increased to one in two. Hence, the majority of Indians probably agree
that the demands put in the name of majority community are automatically
legitimate. At the current moment majoritarianism justified through three
arguments. First is the argument of the hurt sentiment of the majority
community. Second is branding of dissent or difference as anti-national,
and the third puts nation above democracy.
Hence we see that only BJP is not anti-democratic. Preference for
anti-democracy is spread out in the political class, and has widespread
popular acceptance. An interesting recent book by Levitsky and Ziblatt is
titled ‘How Democracies Die?’ Democracies are eroded from within. We are
witnessing this process in India.
Given our current situation, future scenarios can only be bad or worse. The
two big questions about immediate future are these.
1. Will there be a victory of a higher ideology of exclusion, i.e. will
India become a Hindu majoritarian society. This perhaps will not happen for
another decade. So, we probably have some time.
2. Will there be a complete taming of politics of resistance? We are
staring at this prospect today. Spaces for a simple politics of resistance
are drying out fast.
Prof Palshikar’s presentation was followed by a lively question answer
session. Some of the issues discussed in the Q&A session were related to
the role of social and cultural factors in democracy, reasons for the
failure of popular mobilisation after Emergency, global spread of
majoritarian politics and its relationship to neo-liberal political
economy, privatisation of development, consociational democracy, and
vernacularisation of Hindutva.
[ Democracy Dialogues Series
*The idea behind beginning this series is basically to initiate as well as
join the ongoing conversation which is going on around this theme in
academic as well as activist circles.*
*One sees that the very idea of democracy which has taken deep roots across
the world, has come under scanner for various reasons. We have been witness
to the ascent of rightwing forces, demogogues via the same democratic route
and also the anamolous sounding situation that deepening and spread of
democracy among hitherto marginalised sections – has not led to
commensurate percolation of liberal democratic values.*
*Coming to India, there have been valid concerns about rise of
authoritarian streak among Indians and how it has helped strengthen BJP’s
hard right turn. The strong support for democracy here is accompanied by
increasing fascination towards majoritarian, authoritarian politics here.
In fact, we would like to state that a vigorous electoral democracy here
has become a vehicle for religious counterrevolution.*
*Join us on facebook.com/newsocialistinitiative.nsi
<http://facebook.com/newsocialistinitiative.nsi> for further updates*]
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