Harbans Mukhia’s article in The Hindu, “Making it ‘for the people’ again” (Op-Ed, October 13, 2012), has endorsed the campaign against graft led by Arvind Kejriwal as a movement that has the potential to make democracy once again “for the people.”

He argues that the movement highlights the growing crisis of legitimacy “of the whole system of governance” and squarely re-strengthens democracy and the democratic content of public institutions by making them more accountable, in tilting them in favour of the “99 per cent.” While the article correctly notes that what is legal, like the Emergency of 1975, need not necessarily be legitimate, it assumes, however, that what is popular is unambiguously democratic and singular.

The problem with campaigns such Anna Hazare’s and now Mr. Kejriwal’s is that they assume a seamless continuity between social campaigns and political mobilisation. If one is serious about democracy, one cannot afford to overlook the consequences of these two different plains and their implications for democracy. While it is easy to correlate popular will with social activism against corruption, the moment it enters political/electoral politics the dynamics undergo dramatic transformation. It is relatively easy to generate consent and consensus in the social domain especially against issues such as corruption; every individual and social group can afford to concede the point that corruption is illegitimate, morally degrading and undermines democracy. However, politics has to do with concrete interests and wider social, and cultural beliefs and prejudices of individuals and social groups and does not have the privilege to pick and choose issues. This is where democracy is a far more complex game than what we are given to believe by Mr. Kejriwal, and academics like Prof. Mukhia and Yogendra Yadav.

If democracy is all about articulating and representing popular will, then one needs to be equally concerned about the content of that popular will. When the popular is not democratic in content but popular amounts to democracy, how does one work towards reconciliation between the two? The recent spate of events in Haryana, and the pronouncements by the leaders of the Khap panchayats, which found resonance in the views expressed by the Ministers in the Congress government, explains the inherent conflict within democratic processes. In this case what is popular and “by the people” is not necessarily democratic in content, but political leaders are expected to represent the popular will, and to that extent were “legitimate” in expressing the popular beliefs of the constituency they represent. Politics, therefore, unlike social campaigns, cannot have the privilege of selectively picking and choosing issues that are perceived to be unproblematically and morally correct, and can generate consensus.

Nature of democracy

Politics includes everything from the public to the private, and the nature of democracy is decided by how politicians respond and negotiate between multiple issues that are often conflicting. It is for this reason that we expect politicians to have an opinion on everything. It is pertinent while talking of democracy to remember that not only is the popular not necessarily democratic but “the people” are not necessarily united but have conflicting interests. Politics and democracy are essentially an art of generating a consensus-majority amidst these conflicting interests, on the one hand, and negotiating and representing social views that are uneven — sometimes democratic but many a time regressive on the other.

Corruption, therefore, has roots not merely in the economy but also in the nature of the polity and society itself. It is in negotiating with what could sometimes be irreconcilable differences between social groups, and in accommodating interests that cannot be easily accommodated, that corruption finds its place in what we often refer to as populist and corrupt measures, including offering money, liquor, and other imaginative and sometimes unimaginable sops.

Again, while Prof. Mukhia is right in pointing out that we have adopted an economic model that impoverished the majority, even here it has impoverished different social groups to different extents and in different ways. The ways the tribals of Chhattisgarh have got displaced and impoverished is markedly different from the way the backward classes have been treated. People always perceive inequality not in absolute terms but in relative terms, and it is for this reason that even the urban middle classes feel they have had it rough with economic reforms. Democracy heightens and brings into play these nuances and uneven impacts that are not imagined but real. How to tilt the popular will in favour of the poorest and the most deprived keeping these open, conflicting and representative mechanisms in place is the real challenge and the most effective way of “making it for the people again” — and not in generating a moralistic critique of politics and politicians holding a moral high ground for generating consensus through social activism and around selectively and prudently chosen issues.

Undermining this difference, far from strengthening democracy will actually undermine it. Imagining a simplistic consensus “for the people” has always given rise to authoritarian regimes, which is what partially explains why all campaigns against graft, even in the past, have tilted towards right-wing modes of mobilisation, including that led by Jayaprakash Narayan. Politicians of the day need to be critiqued and held accountable but the avocation of politics and the creative image and role of a politician in a democracy need to be avowedly defended.

(Ajay Gudavarthy is at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)

Harbans Mukhia responds

More In: Comment | Opinion