In his new book, Professor Sumantra Bose discusses India’s political transformation and the challenges it faces in the times ahead.
Professor Sumantra Bose’s new book, Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy, tells the story of India’s political journey, charting the democracy’s transformation from what Bose calls the ‘watershed’ elections of 1989 to its evolution into a robust multiparty and federal union, with regional parties and leaders emerging as powerful political players. Excerpts:
A little about the decision to write Transforming India?
I’m teaching International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics in the UK but I was actually trained in the US, where I did both my undergraduate and graduate work. My graduate work was at Columbia University in NY, and I trained in comparative political science. One of the issue areas that interested me the most was democracy and democratisation. I have studied that across regions and I knew that someday I would turn to the travails of Indian democracy as a topic for a substantial book. In a way this is a homecoming for me.
It’s an interesting title for a book, and reads like a description as well as a prediction. Your comments?
To use a clichéd phrase, it’s possible to see Indian democracy as a glass half full or a glass half empty. There are so many things to criticise, and in a way Indian democracy is a soft target. For various reasons I did want to take a reasonably positive, yet critical view of it. The title has a double meaning. It’s about the transformation of Indian politics post November 1989, and the accelerating regionalisation that’s happened since then. I came up with a few phrases to describe this, including a decentred democracy, and also a bottom up federalisation, determined by the will of the people. That’s one sense in which the word transformation is used, where it is more of an adjective. The second is more a verb and alludes to the essential transformation that has to happen if Indian democracy wants to truly be of, by and for the people.
Could you elaborate on the idea of regionalisation and its inevitability in the Indian context?
I look at regionalisation as a natural evolution of Indian politics. The way I put it is, if India’s social map is diverse and complex, why should its political map be any different? Of course there have been two variants of catch all politics, aggregating identities and interests. The traditional variant was by the Congress, which finally petered out in 1989. The second variant that tried to supplant the previous one, better described at the catch most politics, was BJP in the first half of 1990s. Then the BJP moved towards the inevitability of coalition politics and network of regional allies, enabling it to come to power for the next six years.
Could fragmentation become a reality in the era of widespread regionalisation?
I’m not too worried about that. I think that the democratic stability of the Indian union and Indian national identity is inherently strong in most parts of the country and most of its citizens. The other thing is that there are so many identities and interest groups being represented through the institutions of Indian democracy, channelled through democratic procedures, that it only strengthens the democracy and makes it more representative. That said I’m a bit concerned about the nature of regionalist politics, and the very non-constructive form of regional politics that doesn’t look beyond particular identities and agendas and degenerates into rampant corruption and criminality. To give you an example, I don’t see anything, especially in the North Indian context, intrinsically wrong or illegitimate about caste based politics. However the problem has been that this has become the breeding ground for corruption and criminality.
Would you call the rise of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate an example of the regionalisation of Indian democracy?
In a way Modi’s rise reflects the tendency of regionalism. He is after all a regional leader and a controversial figure. My view is that the hype over Modi will turn out to be a dampener. The smaller reason is Modi’s own limitations as a politician. The bigger reason is that in the era of regionalisation, the idea of a single commanding nationwide leader has become obsolete. The way I put it in the book as well is that the search for a national saviour is a red herring. The real challenge of Indian politics at this juncture is much more complex and goes beyond single personalities. It is to make federalism work at both the centre and in centre state relations.