The Indian experience

Rajeev Bhargava Tani Bhargava
13 May 2010

By virtue of their legitimate capacity to throw "paper stones" at their ostensible rulers, ordinary people have begun to feel that those rulers can be made accountable.

Radical democratic theory never tires of claiming that democracy means something deeper and wider than mere elections, that to have real substance, democracy must embody social and economic equality.

So indeed it is. But it is mistaken to think that the deeper sense of democracy is necessarily opposed to or obfuscated by its other, narrow political meaning. A real and tangible connection exists in India between elections and, if not equality of wealth and income, at least equality of status.

For it is primarily as voters that the hitherto marginalised people, the poor peasant, the disorganised worker, the outcaste, have acquired a sense of empowerment. For them, casting votes is not merely a symbolic, expressive but a communicative act, signalling to their former superiors, oppressors or to cold-hearted governments that the equation of power is changing. Elections have transformed the self-understandings of these people, the very manner in which they imagine themselves.

It is plain for everyone to see that universal franchise has helped to dismantle traditional hierarchies.

The moral identity of Indian society has significantly altered because of a very real sense among the people that governments should work for the people and can be made to work for their benefit. All kinds of "clientist" networks have since been built to make this possible, if not always to ensure it. The poor in India know that they have an enduring stake in a sturdy democracy. This is why they come out in hordes to vote.

This contrasts sharply with western democracies where voters' apathy is strongest among the poor and marginalised. It is also markedly different from the current attitudes and behaviour of the disillusioned middle classes in India, which, having grasped the causal link between democracy and an incremental shift in power, are tentatively turning towards somewhat authoritarian solutions.

On its own, political democracy is unlikely to improve the economic condition of the poor. But it has given them the self-confidence and the much needed social space to strive to improve their own life-chances. This could never have happened without their birth as voters.

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