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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Democracy in India

Democracy, as well known, is a terribly flawed, but we know of no better option. Since they have to rely on the number of voters, instead of aiming at their quality, many politicians incline to political patronage of as many lobbies as possible–no matter which ones. On the other hand, all political systems which allow the right to vote to only an élite are liable to the shortcoming of making this élite profit of its position and exploit the non-voters, who cannot rebel (unless violently). One might suggest that democracy needs –in order to work properly– an on-going education of the masses. Information must be widely available and conflicting views should be able to reach the widest audience, in order for the voters to vote after having been able to know and judge the candidates. This process might be time-consuming, but the right to vote seems to me an adhikāra, that is, a right entailing a responsibility. However, many voters may prefer patronage. Hence, either one denies this right to irresponsible voters (and the scenario would then resemble the elitarian one sketched above), or one should be able to persuade people without forcing them. A possible argument could be that of one's future benefits. Culture matters, as shown not just by Amartya Sen, but also by many other thinkers who are not suspected of holding a political agenda. South Korea, for instance, changed its destiny through improving the level of instruction of its inhabitants and countries where illiteracy still affects a large part of the population are more likely to be/remain underdeveloped. But what about the case of a voter who prefers a bird in the (present) hand to two in the (future) bush?

The problem seems crucial for today's societies. Why is it so neglected in Indian philosophy? The Arthaśāstra assumes somehow the position of Macchiavelli's Principe, that is, dictatorship is unavoidable, let us then make it as good as possible. Other treatises wish to instruct the king in order to mitigate his possible defects. Some Brahmans might (I am no expert in the sociological background of dharmaśāstra) have devised law-codes in order to grant to themselves a role at the side of the sovereign. All other authors seem either to have enjoyed the favour of a powerful protector who sponsored them, or to have altogether ignored the issue.
The idea of karman and rebirth might have played a role, insofar as it legitimates the status quo (people who are born devoid of any political right are surely not worth having any).

Still, India is today's biggest democracy. Indians are proud of it and even the conservatives use democracy and do not condemn it (though praising Indian cultural past, the Laws of Manu, etc.). Apart from the UK influence and Gandhi's genius, how could this occur? Could one detect some thoughts serving as its inner foundation within Indian cultural past? And in case this should not be the case, did India develop a political thought worth considering, in order to improve (or substitute) our imperfect democracies?

(photo from


windwheel said...

I think older authors- like Raja Kumud Mukherjee- throw light on the Indian understanding of the issues you have raised in the posts under the label 'Brahmanas'. At that time- i.e. Nineteen Twenties- there was one 'traditional' type of representative institutions in the Princely States which had its roots in indigenous notions of the limits on the Monarch's power. In British India, another type of representative Institution was developing where the issue was not the 'Common Law' limitations on Monarchical Power but the question of to what extent representatives of various interest groups had a duty to collaborate with the Administration. Gandhi's genius was to totally vitiate and destroy both possibilities by always doing the stupidest thing possible and thus sustaining a massive defeat.His Non Cooperation Movement failed totally, indeed it had been set up to fail, and so cleared the way for a radical break such that co-operation with the administration ceased to be a duty. The Brits and other less stupid Indians quickly saw the way to neutralize Gandhi and the Princely States soon learned the same technique. This is shown by the failure of the Rajkot Satyagraha. The old 'Thakore' (Prince) was a devotee of Gandhi and had beefed up Representative Institutions. His son, however, was a wastrel. He just wanted to have as much money for his pleasure as possible and resented the rebukes and admonishments of the representatives of the People. This should have been an ideal opportunity for Gandhi to show the power of his Satyagraha- especially as the Viceroy could easily remove a wastrel Prince and put some other boy on the Throne. However, the new Prince had a wily adviser who promptly introduced a quota for Low Castes, Untouchables, Muslims etc such that Gandhi's party- the Indian National Congress- was totally marginalized. The Viceroy now found his hands were tied. He could not remove the spend=thrift Prince without angering the Low Castes, Muslims etc.
Indian Democracy now had another basis- not something which evolves from Common Law, as Macaulay had observed w.r.t the limited Monarchies of Western Euprope- but as a sort of 'countervailing' power or delegitimizing, de-hegemonizing, force which permitted the agenda of the Opposition to go forward more expeditiously than that of the Hegemon. Gandhi's genius was to invent this 'loser takes all' type trajectory for Indian Democracy. The joke is that if Conservatives hold power they have to push a Socialist agenda and vice versa- Manmohan and Pranab and Sonia and so on are all dyed in the wool Socialists- whereas poor old Buddhadeb lost Bengal for the Communists, by trying to please the plutocrats and inherit the mantle of Deng Xioping.
My understanding of India is that everybody simultaneously belongs to a 'jati' as well as its 'anti-jati'. The 'jati' may be endogamous or Credentialist-exclusionary but the 'anti-jati' is the opposite. Power within the jati comes from one's anti-jati connectivity. The one can have a human face but the other is a sort of composite of animal and human and godly and demonic. While 'jati' seems to be about universals and essences and immutable and impassable Social Stratification- and this is what the Westerner sees- the real work is being done by the anti-jatis which operate subliminially and across or behind such constructs as Human or other Identity.
But, since this has always been the case, Indology faces an intractable signal extraction problem. But that does not matter because India has already co-opted it for its Maya of jati.

elisa freschi said...

Just because of my personal limitations, I am quite bad at understanding lakṣaṇā and can only make sense of plane abhidhā-sentences. This makes me read more essays than poems (novels are still acceptable for me)… and to often puzzle about the closing sentences of your comments…

windwheel said...

I think people who do actual research, like yourself, genuinely have something to say and so avoid 'meta-statements'. As you can see, I write too much- this shows I have nothing to say. Still, it is worth acknowledging in one's siddhanta that one's dialectical violence to the purvapaksha has ironically rebounded upon oneself. In any case I am going to be 50 soon, so I'm permitted a sour attitude because I have found myself to be the Rome to which all paths lead and 'Roma vedua fede perdua' (is that correct?) I mean to say 'who lives in Rome, loses his Faith'.

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