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Updated: January 14, 2014 04:07 IST

Primary colours of democracy

  • Arun Mohan Sukumar
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Battles Half Won - India's Improbable Democracy by Ashutosh Varshney.
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Battles Half Won - India's Improbable Democracy by Ashutosh Varshney.

Varshney examines why millions of Indians head to the polls regularly to sustain an improbable system

Nearly eight years after being entitled to vote, I will cast my first in a national election this year. If the accumulated guilt from shirking responsibility weighs heavily on my mind, so does an education in political science. My professors have reliably informed me of what is termed the “paradox of voting.” It seems the probability of one voter making a difference to an election is miniscule compared to his costs — time, money and effort — of going to the polls. I can hardly claim my interests to be perfectly aligned with India’s massive electorate. By voting, am I then merely tipping my hat to Indian democracy? If not, how do I make my vote count?

Battles Half Won examines why millions of Indians with dissonant interests head to the polls every few years to sustain an “improbable” democracy. Ashutosh Varshney’s hypothesis is simple: India may have “adopted” a democratic system to further the goals of economic development and social justice, but they don’t determine its fate. Whether popular governments deliver or not, Indians will continue to place their faith on the ballot, suggests Varshney, because it is identity, not purpose that animates our democracy. In an election where the ideal of growth is muttered in the same breath as the fear of religious fundamentalism, this is a radical conception. To make their case, the lucid essays in Battles Half Won stand on the shoulder of frontier research in political science. Modernisation theory, now accepted as conventional wisdom, predicts that economic growth facilitates the emergence of democracy. Development, however, cannot account for the survival, or as Varshney suggests, the “deepening” of democracy. Identities — religion, language, ethnicity or caste — do. Battles makes repeated references to caste-based movements across India, most of which were not girded on the economic oppression of lower castes, but tapped into a collective sense of injustice.

Identity politics

The book then examines whether Indian democracy, so understood, has been successful in attaining its goals of “national unity, social justice and elimination of mass poverty.” But after clinically separating democracy — defined by “contestation and participation” at the polls — from its goals, Varshney is left with few options to analyse the convergence of politics and policy. To him, all and every major policy measure — whether it is affirmative action, the rural employment guarantee scheme, or food security legislation — has its genesis in identity-based politics. Even the market-oriented reforms of 1991 came about, Varshney argues, because the government was able to stitch together an unlikely coalition worried about the rise of the Hindu right. There can be little doubt that identity-based movements have nudged a great many Indians to exercise their franchise. But quantitative parameters like voter turnout and assembly seats alone cannot adequately explain qualitative expressions that Varshney himself ascribes to democracy. In this regard, the Indian state and its institutional legacy is a mere bystander in Battles Half Won.

To Varshney, India’s governing institutions were nurtured initially by the statesmanship and vision of Nehru, who “toned down” the scale of industrialisation to ensure democracy was not at risk from a peasant rebellion. During his term, the reorganisation of states assumed top priority and the linguistic “cleavages” across the country midwifed modern Indian federalism. Meanwhile, caste and religion-based coalitions gained momentum in the late 1970s and ‘80s, attracting political capital and marking the rise of subaltern politics. The rest, for Varshney, is history. If India has advanced its developmental agenda on some counts and lagged in others, it is purely on account of such identity-based coalitions. Some of the claims he advances on this front are persuasive. Battles Half Won deals extensively with the intersection of caste and entrepreneurship in India, noting how the economic prosperity of Other Backward Classes in the south has been correlated to their political mobilisation.

However, comparative political scientists have empirically ascertained that the interaction between institutions of governance and political actors has been a two-way street, even in consociational democracies where power is neatly divided between various ethnicities. Simply put, no political party is left unaffected by a stint in government, no matter how rigid its electoral base is. Varshney makes a token reference to this process, notably with regard to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s evolving position on Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code. Conversely, governing institutions too are affected by political actors. While identity politics may swing a party’s fortunes at the elections, it is by no means a determinant of the policies a party will pursue once in power. This is especially true in a set-up where the state machinery confers enormous power and responsibility on those who govern it.

Bureaucracy’s role

Battles Half Won tip-toes past these concerns. In the Indian context, any discussion on democracy is incomplete without highlighting the role of the bureaucracy in shaping it. As an unelected and permanent instrument of governance, the bureaucracy decisively moulds post-electoral politics and, indirectly, the electorate. Varshney devotes little space to acknowledge its impact. He admits anti-caste movements in northern India gained traction after middle-class bureaucrats belonging to lower castes threw their weight behind them. Yet, Varshney makes no attempt to take this linkage to its logical conclusion and differentiate state patronage and political patronage of lower castes. Similarly, we are unsure whether the rise of lower caste entrepreneurs in the south has been occasioned by affirmative action policies in higher education. On Centre-State relations, Varshney highlights how linguistic politics has successfully managed to wrest power from New Delhi. This is an obvious conclusion; some would say the Indian Constitution was designed precisely to enable a flexible variant of federalism. Regional politics has merely served as a conduit for this trickling down of democracy. Without any attempt to situate the changing landscape of identity-based movements within India’s legal-institutional framework, it is tough to palate the notion that politics alone sustains a democracy.

The interaction between governing institutions and politics is especially prominent in the case of ethnic conflict. If state machinery has the power to prevent or foster (through wilful neglect) communal violence, then it follows that the state also has the power to re-configure ethnic politics. Varshney’s outstanding scholarship in this field maintains that inter-ethnic civic ties determine the incidence of ethnic conflict. The strongest critique of his theory comes from Yale’s Steven Wilkinson who argues the state in certain circumstances has an “electoral incentive” to foment communal violence. Wilkinson argues, based on formidable empirical research, that state capacity — i.e., the strength of its enforcement agencies — is decisive to communal violence. Ethnic cleavages alone, no matter how tense, will not result in conflict unless the state’s action or omission contributes to their breakdown. The role of bureaucrats and their relationship to political actors, then, becomes central to the health of Indian democracy, an aspect that is understudied in Battles Half Won.

This relationship is also influential in calibrating economic policy. Pranab Bardhan and Atul Kohli, for instance, have highlighted how Rajiv Gandhi’s close ties to a select group of technocrats became pivotal in formulating several of his government’s policies ahead of the 1991 reforms. Today, that space has come increasingly to be occupied by the National Advisory Council, whose recommendations have translated into or seriously weighed on policy measures, including communal violence and rural employment guarantee. Institutions like the NAC — a “super-bureaucracy” in some respects — thus have the potential to influence identity politics through policy.

Battles Half Won elevates the discourse on Indian politics by grounding its cause-and-effect relationship to democracy in empirical claims and sharp analyses. But beyond the noise of electoral politics, governing institutions in India offer subtle signals as to the future course of its democracy. An authoritarian leader who owes his victory to identity politics would still have to submit himself before the ballot five years later. In this regard, India's democratic process may have been set on an irreversible course. But during his years in power, such a figure could constrict the deliberative space among elected representatives, bureaucrats, the police and the judiciary. This would peg back the goals of Indian democracy and it would be impossible to trace its impact to identity politics. The Indian state is as much a mover and shaker of democracy as its politics is. The twain shall always meet, and that will determine the victors in the battle for Indian democracy.

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