In the light of his latest book “Revolution from Above — India’s Future and the Citizen Elite”, well-known sociologist Dipankar Gupta reasons why it is not through elections alone that democracy prospers

It is no news anymore that poll time has now been reduced to one-upmanship. You see political parties and their governments sprouting policies and counter policies in an all too familiar mine-is-better fashion. All done to attract votes, and thereby seize power, in a scenario where power and public money have long become hostage to corrupt beings. Those without the necessities are increasingly being stripped off their basic rights as citizens and are always at the mercy of the elite in charge.In a near hopeless situation comes well-known sociologist Dipankar Gupta hammering the point that this citizen elite — the cream of the crop embracing power, money and all the electoral calculations, can actually make a positive difference and turn the state into a true deliverer of services to all. Delhi-based Gupta expounds on this idea in his latest book “Revolution from Above — India’s Future and the Citizen Elite” (Rupa). In a conversation on the book, he is convincing in his belief — that they can go against the grain of popular sentiments, from caste and religious politics, from tinkering with the economy, to the larger vision of fraternity. He throws at you examples from Europe, and also from India of the formative years, to drive home the point.

“Look at Europe, almost all the policies that contributed to better their human development index came from the top…the welfare state, their scientific policies, R and D, Britain’s National Health Service, Social Insurance Scheme …they were all brought in by a few people at the top. Some returned to power because of their policies, some didn’t. But they all did what they thought was right and allowed people to judge them.”

More recently (read 1980s), the world saw that happening in Basque Spain. “I was fortunate to be appointed a visiting professor at Deutso University in Bilbao. I spoke to many Basque nationalists to understand how their region moved from poverty to prosperity so soon. Basque Spain of 1980s usually arouses in you images of terrorist, of the ETA, a polluted river, ugly chimney stacks along the banks, a grim and grey place. But today it has left the rest of Spain well behind it. Among other achievements, it is the leader in alternative energy. I asked the people at the top, ‘So you did this because people wanted it?’ they said, ‘No, we did what we thought was good and let people judge us.’”

That is when the idea came to him, to look at India closely. “I found that we had the elite of calling once. Perhaps Gandhi and Nehru were doing the same thing. Gandhi fought untouchability against popular sentiment; Nehru fought his own colleagues to bring the Hindu Marriage Act. If they had thought about electoral calculations then or whether such stands would make them unpopular, they would not have been able to bring about these changes which majority of the society then was opposed to. Today, we can’t think of promoting untouchability and Hindu men taking as many wives as they want.”

Gupta, head of the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, has a point here on why it should come from the top. “People don’t really know what is good for them because they don’t know what are the choices available to them. It is like buying a car. How would you know which one is better for you when you don’t know the variety in the market?”

You point out that today’s politicians are also bringing in policies that they want. Take the National Food Security Bill, it has been brought by the Congress Government without the support of the Opposition. He incisively draws out the difference — of a vision then and of piecemeal measures now.

“Our politicians are only election-oriented. They claim that they are listening to the people but they are actually bringing in policies to win votes, not to take the society forward.” Some of our policies are there, he points out, “not because they want to abolish poverty but to keep the poor alive because they can be used to win elections.” That is why, he underlines, “We have on the agenda health for the poor, education for the poor, food for the poor, etc. What we need instead is universal health, universal education, universal livelihood. When we have the same policies for the rich and the poor, and the system is bound to deliver, there is no need for reservation anywhere.” He goes back to Europe and North America here to substantiate his point. “Look at France, Canada, Spain, Sweden, if people are sick, rich or poor, they go to government hospitals. Same with education. The state has to treat both rich and the poor as equal, then only a society can progress as a whole.”

Not that in India one is not getting anything. He tells you how this is happening. “When the basic requirements like health, education, housing, energy, are not evenly distributed, we all try and maximise our positions, I as a professor, someone as a politician, somebody else as a labourer or a businessman…we all are doing the best that we can, which is called the politics of the given. In the process, somebody gets something, a gas connection or a water pipeline here, a good position there, a business contract somewhere…but the society doesn’t move forward as a whole.” What we have created in the process is “patron-client relationship.”

“My cook needs to go to the hospital, I being his patron ask someone to help him. I am a client of that someone, in the process no one is independent.”

Gupta feels the need for policies like universal health, education and livelihood should be the talking point of “people like us.” “We are small in number but we are the critical people...thinkers, journalists, politicians, the citizen elite.” Because with the intervention of such people, states the former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, “a vision to initiate change can be put on the political agenda to go beyond the short-term electoral calculations.” He is relevant here when he says, “It is not by elections alone that democracy prospers.”

In the same vein, Gupta knocks down the odds of “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh becoming a Nehru.” Almost there and yet an opportunity lost.

“Nehru had many faults and some of them haunt us even today. But he did function with a vision of a utopia because he was intent on changing the given and creating a wider fraternity-based democracy. When Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister, there was hope that he would rise above politics and the constraints of the given. Today, if he appears to have lost his intellectual starch, it is because he has repeatedly aligned his actions with the logic of coalition politics. For a while he was trapped between the chair and a throne, but then he chose the latter.”

In a chapter in the book where he compares Singh with Nehru, Gupta points at the incident when IIT graduates refused to take their degrees from him in order to mark their support for Anna Hazare. “This ended his dream run of emerging as another chacha. This rudeness was not quite fair since he had come to felicitate them but the young graduates saw in him a representative of all that was wrong in our public life.”

Scholars, specially the good ones, he says, “are much sought after by political parties to bolster their public image. Bad scholars, on the other hand, desperately seek political parties to enhance their personal status. Manmohan Singh did not have to be in politics, he was a good economist.” You see your bubble of hope bursting there when he signs off saying, “The Congress has certainly gained a politician in Singh, but the world has lost an intellectual and a possible citizen elite.”