Democracy in India – 7

Let us put the big question on the table.

Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India?

In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

On can start with the Enlightenment thinkers to understand the social conditions out of which the aspirations for equality emerged – we have done that in earlier posts. But the quickest summary of the second phase can be gained by looking at the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) who sought to persuade his fellow intellectuals to accept the legacy of the French Revolution warning them that it was impossible to turn the clock back.

De Tocqueville pointed out that the growing equality was inevitable and urged a focus on how liberty could be preserved in an egalitarian age  (one of de Tocqueville’s major fears was that democracy would degenerate into despotism). Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.

In an excellent primer (Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002), Bernard Crick distinguishes three dimensions of democracy: democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). And he points out that “they do not always go together.”

Crick elaborates the third dimension as follows: “democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else as a ‘way of life’ in which the ‘spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal” (pages 9-10).

Let us now come back to India. It satisfies Crick’s first two dimensions but not the third. And this is the peculiarity of Indian democracy. The historical sequence mentioned above has been reversed. Democracy with universal suffrage has arrived before a social revolution that removed a hierarchical aristocratic order. In fact, even the idea of equality itself is not fully grounded in the polity.

Thus almost all comments about Mayawati feel it necessary to include the reference to her being an “untouchable;” there are quite unselfconscious remarks about the voting behavior of the “lower orders;” and one comes across journal articles with titles like the following reflecting the reality of contemporary Indian life: They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home.

Visionary leaders were quite well aware of these contradictions. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:

In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

It takes a long time to change structures and it is very messy. What one is seeing in India today is unique in human history – democracy and the vote being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that will accomplish what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the western world. But, in doing so, will it degenerate into the despotism that de Tocqueville feared?

It is history turned on its head and a fascinating process to watch and be part of.

The journal article mentioned in the text is to appear in Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, eds., The Middle Classes in India: Identity, Citizenship and the Public Sphere.

The quote from Dr. Ambedkar is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, page 15.

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  • Kiran Contractor
    Posted at 01:26h, 07 August Reply

    This is a wonderfully penetrating and concise insight into democracy in India – “a very short introduction” to the topic! I especially liked the way of putting it that democracy becomes the instrument and social transformation a possible outcome, a reversal of the Western experience.

    I would like to ask two questions which I hope will be addressed in future posts.

    1. How different is the West in regard to social equality, the third dimension – is it a matter of degree or a matter of kind?

    2. What is the role of the so-called middle class in a democracy, Indian or Western?

  • Antuna Hindu
    Posted at 03:59h, 25 January Reply

    This is a very good resource, and as someone before me said, a very good introduction to the topic. I think that this subject it is very controversial, do men are created equal?

    Contact: Pablo Antuna
    Hinduism Beliefs

  • Prabin
    Posted at 09:09h, 13 February Reply

    this is a great initiative. but i guess i need to cover all your posts on democracy in india to debate subjectively.

    Blogrolling you.

  • Pingback:India’s big idea: A simple comparative assessment « An academic view of India
    Posted at 01:43h, 26 January Reply

    […] Bernard Crick splits democracy into three components: […]

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:23h, 21 February Reply

    There is a very relevant op-ed by Professor Andre Beteille on the subject of hierarchy in India. The key insight supports the point argued often on this blog – that electoral politics, at least in the medium term, slows the dissolution of hierarchy that follows upon economic development, globalization and urbanization.

    The impact of electoral politics on exacerbating caste divisions today parallels the exacerbation of religious and communal divisions in the run up to 1947. This is something important to reflect upon.

    India’s Destiny Not Caste in Stone

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:14h, 07 March

      To continue this discussion there is a good response to Andre Beteille’s argument by Professor Joseph Tharamangalam. The response investigates why caste inequalities are resistant to the process of modernization in India:

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:57h, 29 November

      And another comment on Andre Beteille’s piece from Professor Jean Dreze:

      “The real issue, actually, is not so much caste consciousness as the role of caste as an instrument of power…. upper castes continue to have overwhelming control over public institutions…. it is not clear why “caste consciousness” would die in such circumstances. The dying of caste consciousness, in this situation, would sound like a good deal for the upper castes, since the system of domination would continue without much notice being taken of it. Dalits, for their part, have absolutely no reason to be unconscious of the dominance of the upper castes.”

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