Bookmark: Ashutosh Varshney’s new book “Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy” sheds light on the nation’s political journey
Professor Ashutosh Varshney’s book comes at perhaps the most opportune moment, and at a time when questions pertaining to democracy, justice and liberty are being re-examined and questioned, “Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy” turns the spotlight on some key questions that take a closer look at successes and failures of India's political journey.
The launch, held at India International Centre earlier this week, had Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of Indian Express in conversation with Ashutosh Varshney. In true fashion of a seasoned professor, Varshney commenced the evening with a power point presentation and brief but engaging summary of the book. The book is a collection of 10 essays and a long introductory essay, and Varshney, a Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Brown University, systematically covered the various ideas and debates the book offers. The idea of combining his talk with a presentation that included bullet points listing key problem areas was interesting, as well as helpful, allowing the audience to follow the arguments closely and make notes.
Approaching the questions in his book from a new, comparative perspective, Varshney discussed present-day politics, covering issues dealing with coalitions, under-governance and liberalisation measures. Of Mahatma Gandhi Varshney said, “It is noteworthy that Gandhi himself was not very fond of representative government, his ideal polity was one that had local village republics, more in line with direct, non-representative democracy.” Varshney added that “Without the freedom movement, India’s nationhood was inconceivable and therefore, India’s democracy was also inconceivable.” Varshney also talked about the “consolidation of national democracy”, post-1947, calling it the next huge act after Independence, throwing light on the leadership of Nehru and his vital role in Indian democracy.
After discussions that touched on elections, early and later stages of Indian democracy and the importance of minority rights, Varshney concluded his talk with a look at the challenges Indian democracy faces today. “The book draws the difference between the quality of democracy and existence of democracy”. He said that there were three key problems India’s founding fathers faced; national integrity, providing welfare to those at the bottom of the social order, and attacking poverty. Varshney, quoting Simon P. Huntington famous line ““Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope”, added that with the exception of the word disappointment, the quote can be relevant to the Indian context too. “India has spent 60-odd years as a democracy and for a society deeply racked by social inequalities and hierarchy, has come quite far but needs to go further; the battle for deeper democracy is the need of the hour.” He added that the Aam Aadmi Party is one example of this fight for a deeper democracy.
This in-depth summary of the book was followed by a round of discussions between Varshney and Shekhar Gupta, and the two discussed relevant, current topics that incited many questions from the audience. The shortage of time left many questions unanswered, but Varshney tried to tackle as many doubts as he could. The launch ended with a brief address by Varshney.