The idea of a citizen elite who are willing to forsake their immediate class interests for social good is wishful

You could treat a problem, say, a common cold, with either a home remedy or one that comes wrapped in aluminium. But there is a third option — a healthier lifestyle. It does help, but not quite like a tulsi brew, for it is more of a generic prescription. In a way, sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s Revolution from above is like a book that seems to be about a healthier lifestyle but what it really wants to take care of is the common cold.

Gupta’s generic prescription for India’s problems, as the sub-title “India’s future and the citizen elite” indicates, lies in the hands of a few. He describes the path of democracy as a mirror held to the status quo punctuated by periods of social change, where it acts as a hammer altering society. He focuses on these periods where democracy acts as a hammer and says that this hammer is forged by certain visionaries. It is these visionaries he calls the ‘elite of calling’ or the ‘citizen elite’. In the first four chapters, he elaborates on this idea of the citizen elite, by drawing different examples from Europe’s experience with democracy.

Unlike the political elite or the business elite, Gupta says, the citizen elite are willing to ‘forsake their immediate class interests for social good’. They are not a law unto themselves, like dictators, but submit to popular mandate, where others judge their worth. Once the masses see value in their vision, they follow, and democracy alters its course toward a greater fraternity among citizens.

For instance, Gupta characterises Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Ahimsa as an example of ‘elite’ intervention as it was not created in consultation with the masses but Gandhi proposed it and the rest then saw value in it and followed. Interestingly, Gupta proceeds to loosen the cord uniting Ahimsa and spirituality and nudges Ahimsa closer to politics and views it as a political precept guiding democracy. In doing so, he places Gandhi as an intellectual predecessor of contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas, known for his theories on democracy and the value of reason in public debate, and questions why contemporary theorists of democracy do not see Gandhi thus.

After Gandhi, Gupta views Jawaharlal Nehru as another towering example of citizen elite. He views the journey from Nehru to Manmohan Singh as one that is from utopia to politics pandering to the status quo. To use his metaphor, democracy in India today is reduced to a mirror in dire need of arms to forge the hammer.

India’s problems

Thus far, the book seems like a generic prescription for deepening democracy and fraternity in India, based on historical evidence. Chapters five to nine change all that. Gupta now begins tackling the question thus far left implicit — what problems India faces. He first identifies four areas, in need of urgent attention, which can transform the status quo — universal health, universal education, formalisation of the labour force, and a strict policy regarding urbanisation.

According to Gupta, by providing universal health and education, you would have an empowered citizenry who would not be as vulnerable as before. Formalisation of the labour force would force entrepreneurs and the industry to focus on research and innovation to be competitive, rather than flourish on exploiting a low-wage market. And curbing speculation in urban real-estate would mean a shrunken pie for many politicians to depend on, weakening their clout. Though he reasons why he thinks these problems are crucial, a similar case could be built for other issues such as gender equality and secularism. But once you get past debating his choice, the rest of the journey is rewarding.

Health and education

Gupta devotes one chapter to each of the four problems and in these chapters, he rips open India’s underbelly and gets his researcher’s hands deep into its messy insides. From shining a statistics-backed spotlight on the unsung informal labour and small-scale sector, he goes on to flog the private sector for exploiting informal labour rather than investing in innovation and research. He cogently argues for universal healthcare and education and debunks the myth that a ‘poor’ nation like India can only afford to targeted schemes. And finally, in the chapter on planning urbanisation, he expands the debate outside metros to include towns and non-metros. (On the one hand nearly 20 per cent of India’s billionaires live outside metros and on the other, some non-metros have a high slum population, like Meerut, with 43 per cent of its population in slums.) His command over the material reflects in the masterful way he assembles facts and weaves them into a larger narrative. Though he deals with each issue separately, you remain conscious throughout of the complex linkages between them.

It is as though these chapters, detailed descriptions of crucial problems that plague India, form the heart of Gupta’s book — the change he wants to see and why. Fleshing out the generic prescription referring to the citizen elite does not have the same intellectual power, a mix of insight and research. For instance, in the last chapter, Gupta cites the Basque experience as a contemporary example of how democracy could be transformative if the citizen elite put their might behind it. The journey of the Basque region from an economic basket case to a success story with achievements like the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is fascinating. But despite acknowledging that the Basque’s distinctive identity and pride in their historical memory played a crucial role in their path to progress, Gupta doesn’t dwell on how that applies to a multi-dimensional state such as India. Overall, the idea of the citizen elite seems to be more of a wishful thought, a vessel of hope to convey a dismal and daunting reality, which the four chapters in the middle so eloquently do so. Perhaps, we need that hope in some shape, even if we don’t agree that it comes from above.

(Sruthi Krishnan is a journalist who writes on arts and culture)

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