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Reimagining democracy - India more than counts

The founder of openDemocracy on a mind-changing trip to India.

There is talk these days of the eclipse of America and Europe and the rise of the East, the coming commanding influence of Beijing, the economic vitality of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Much of it is overdone. The underlying logic is not. Observing how change is perceived, Bill Gates once said that when a major innovation appears the headlines shout about how big the change will be. A year later little has happened and everyone says that it was all completely overblown. Ten years later, however, the difference is indeed huge. 

Something similar is happening as China and India complete their take-off. These vast countries have now accumulated the internal markets, the skills and the institutions to grow economically and culturally to levels that equal Japan and the West with populations that far outnumber them. It has not happened yet but it is happening. The result has to be – and in the name of equality, and of the moral values the West itself trumpets - the result should be a re-centering of the forces that shape the human planet. 

Will it be confirmed by the use of force, following the hard side of the West’s model of predominance? Or might a different kind of world emerge?

The possibility of the latter will depend on ‘democracy’. Without democracy, in its most fundamental sense of permitting the peaceful change of government based on people’s wishes, the world will otherwise be changed through force and war – less war of conquest than war as an ongoing “mutual enterprise” in which different sides organize their own people with coercion, as Mary Kaldor outlines in her brilliant reconceptualisation of Clausewitz. With democracy peace and legitimate change can accompany each other.

Such a happy outcome sounds unlikely, but you never know.

 * * * * *

I went to India for a second Global Conversation on Democracy organized by CSDS, Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. One of its themes was that democracy could not be imposed by force.

I arrived in time for the launch of two volumes of essays by its Director, and openDemocracy contributor Rajeev Bhargarva, published by Oxford University Press. We squeezed into a packed hall in the International Centre to listen to five panelists, including Christophe Jaffrelot, the leading French field researcher on Hindu nationalism and India's 'other backward classes', a term for India's shudras (the lowest rung in the caste ladder just above the outcasts or former ‘untouchables’). Jaffrelot said “Rajeev is not writing just for India, but for all countries where secularism is at stake”. The report in the Mail Today was headlined “No Chief Guest at the Book Release Event”. The organizers, it reported, had “deviated from the standard book release ritual”. Instead of a star speaker they had “got together some of the finest minds in academia”.

In the introduction to the first volume, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy Rajeev describes how he turned away from the social theory of Marxist style explanation to the normative arguments of a liberal tradition he had originally scorned. In large part this was because he found the need to defend the Indian state and constitution from the assault of Hindu rightists. 

As he has argued in openDemocracy, in a widely read article, the Indian constitution pioneered multi-culturalism and laid the basis for a more sophisticated secular state than the American constitution with its crude ‘separation’ of church and state. I was reminded of his arguments by the recent judgment of the UK’s new Supreme Court that a pious Jewish child with believing parents could not be excluded from the Jewish Free School just because his mother was not born Jewish. The Court ruling is a fascinating one in terms of what constitutes discrimination. There is a good overview here linking to the judgment. The judges unease at their role is openly admitted. Should they permit the toleration of a sincerely held religious belief, even if they think it odious? But what if its practice is discriminatory in terms of human rights? Is it the state’s role to intervene? I think it is, and they took the right decision. But we can also see Britain catching up with India, learning that the state must consider ancient religious doctrines in a secular context and adjudicate how faiths behave.[For a discussion of the case see also Geoffrey Bindman.]

In the second volume of his essays What is Political Theory and Why do We Need it? Rajeev takes his pluralism further, inquiring into the possibility of alternative modernities. One of his themes that I found both attractive and discomforting is his celebration of compromise (he himself is uncompromising although always understanding). He embraces and in his own way claims to be Liberal and Marxist, secular and religious, a Kantian and Hegelian; “I refuse to be pigeon-holed, to be tied by one body of thought when we can be part of many”.  In the discussion one of the speakers said of Rajeev that he demonstrated a belief in the power of reason to achieve ‘moderation’. Rather than, as I was taught to believe, the whole point of reason being to win arguments.

 * * * * *

A European visiting India is enthralled not just by its scale and vitality but also the strangely confident calmness of its hustle-bustle. It is growing fast. We drove westwards out of Delhi to the seminar in Sohna, through the winter fog. The route was National Highway 8 via Haryana’s Gurgaon, along an express motorway with glistening pyramids of call centres and shopping malls looming through the mist. We went through a 32 lane toll gate, apparently Asia’s largest, after which the traffic itself swirled crazily across the biggest spread of tarmac I’ve ever seen free of any lines or markings.

Later Antara Dev Sen and Pratik Kanjilal of the wonderful Little Magazine told me that Gurgaon development is unsustainable. Each complex contains its own power system, water supply and even waste disposal, fortifying it against the dirt and unreliability outside.  

But India’s absolute poverty condemns a now wealthy, modern society. It has to be willed not just regretted or blamed on ‘neo-liberalism’ to have lasted so extensively. A debate was taking place about whether convicted criminals should be allowed to stand for the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament. Apparently a quarter of its MPs have criminal records. In the state assemblies I was told it is even worse with some of them having more than 50 per cent of the members with a criminal record: in India a democratic assembly may be, literally, a den of thieves.

One of the participants at the seminar organises rural workers and annoyed the logging companies. When she moved temporarily to Mumbai she was assaulted, stabbed and had her throat cut by an assassin, who got away almost certainly with police connivance. She just escaped with her life. Is this democracy and the rule of law?

What is true of India internally holds for us all on a world scale. The pleasure, excitement and promise of a more profound and successful advance towards democracy of the kind we were discussing can’t proceed without acknowledging that the destitute still have no claim to a basic livelihood and this is a result of the wickedness of the powerful not fate.

* * * * *

The seminar – it was the second of three - is described as a “global” conversation and half the participants had come from around the world. But despite brilliant interventions, for example from Hulan Hashbat of Mongolia, the other half all shared India as their starting point. It was in fact an Indian conversation in a world context.

I found this made it all the more challenging. How can I put this diplomatically? For the first time I found myself at an international seminar without an American participant. I love the States, its rhythms and preoccupations are part of my imaginative make up (as is its current preoccupation with what Obama faces). But Americans assume, naturally, that the crises of their democracy matters to everyone. They pose their problems as the centre of the debate. Without this presumption another, more interesting one filled the room: what is the future of Indian democracy as a world example?

The organizers want the conversation to issue some kind of statement after it holds a final session. A draft read to us by Yogendra Yadev said among many things:

  • We need to start enriching our democratic imagination as democracy expands, to accommodate diverse languages, multiple histories and traditions … Reimagining democracy along these lines is one of the most salient and urgent ethical and political tasks of our times.
  • We should reject the approach that defines “threshold conditions” and promotes binary, democracy/non-democracy distinctions: “A fresh approach is required, rooted in the recognition that democratic practices may exist in apparently non-democratic regimes and that established democratic states can hide huge concentrations of non-democratic practices”.

You can sense Rajeev’s influence of combination here. It took on a further dimension, an attack on the unilinear definition of the development of democracy. The Western model of the slow expansion of the franchise under the principles of the rule of law that marked the US and the UK and Scandinavia is now an exceptional not the exemplary route to democracy. Therefore we should:

  • Rediscover multiple democratic traditions: sangha, islamic traditions, Ganatantra, as well as the contribution of anti-colonial struggles and movements for democracy.
  • Move away from a teleological view that thinks in terms of stages and pre-conditions in favour of multiple sequences within which the western model is but one possible sequence.
  • Recognise that prosperity and homogeneity are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of democracy.
  • Move away from a romantic, instrumental and deterministic view of democracy – it can be compatible with rule of experts, dominance of corporates, control by private networks and decline of citizen participation. The dysfunctions of democracy need to be made a part of the story of democracy.

This is just a taste of some of the arguments on the table. There were counter views. One of these was put eloquently by Han Sang-jin from South Korea. He welcomed a reimagining of democracy but not the idea of “alternatives” if this was the implication. “We have seen many cases of self-rule, but they can be undemocratic and perhaps authoritarian, as in aspects of tribal ways of life. Can we really call them democratic?” Tribal versions of self-rule, he felt, were not so attractive in East Asia where modernisation is progressing very rapidly and successfully. We need innovation to challenge western perspectives; rather than multi-pathways, a global discourse on modernity is what will be appealing.

I strongly supported him on the issue of not being ‘alternative’ (something that openDemocracy’s David Hayes has waxed eloquently against). D. L Sheth, one of the founders of the CSDS in the sixties, captured the point I was trying to make. Being ‘alternative’ he agreed could lead people into “inadvertent self-marginalisation”. While the seminar was seeking to reimagine democracy, Han dispelled any doubt that we might be looking for an alternative to it - on the contrary we were claiming it.

Sheth took the argument further. “Democracy comes to an ordinary person as a doctrine of individual freedom”. We celebrate its liberalism, he continued, as something that frees people from status and oppressive structures. But at the same time you cannot escape the nation state as the force that shapes this. (His praise of liberalism was opposed, “there are irreducible collective aspects to freedom” it was claimed, I thought of the argument that has started in OurKingdom between Rosemary Bechler and Jeremy Gilbert as to whether liberalism and democracy are in opposition to one another).

Everyone was aware of a paradox that marks our epoch: there is a palpable, growing demand for democracy from people everywhere around the world, yet at the same time there is a widespread sense that democracy as we know it is suffering from exhaustion.  How to explain this paradox? One answer came from Ganesh Devy “It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to combine together in a struggle and hope to succeed. This is why we see democracies as dictatorships. If we can redefine democracy as a politics not of representation but of voice we can develop a new form of democracy. And this will also bring in qualitative respect for diversity”.

This argument seemed to come from the heart of the Indian experience. When MPs constituencies have between 600,000 and a million voters, what voter has ‘voice’? Vipul Mudgal emphasized the impact of “rights based democracy”. He described how the right to information was allowing villagers to know what the budget of their village is, and can prevent their being ripped off. By being able to hear what the books say they are being paid, and then being able to say what they are in fact getting, they start to obtain their legal due. In this way rights deepening politics - rather than standing as a juridical alternative to it. And while you could feel the earth below the peasant sandals in this example, it also linked to Han Sang-Jin’s call to embrace the transparency offered by the internet.

* * * * *

Four years ago I wrote an article with Isabel Hilton called Democracy and openDemocracy. In it we argued that there are three related fronts in the struggle for democracy:

  • First, that being waged by those who live without its classic provisions such as freedom of speech, the rule of law and free and fair elections, in countries as different as Saudi Arabia, China, Palestine and Burma, and the need for solidarity and support for these struggles.
  • Second, the need to rescue and develop democracy in the societies that enjoy the basic principles but where representative systems have in effect stolen influence from citizens and where new forms of participation and deliberation are essential.
  • Third, as power and decision making migrate away from nation states to the international level where voting has little or no meaning for individuals, we need appropriate instruments of democracy in terms of accountability and transparency to ensure legitimacy.

At the seminar I added a fourth point. The State itself in its current, pre-emptive passion is more than aware of the ‘threat’ of democratic warming and is creating an apparatus of surveillance and control under various guises (fear of terrorism, immigration) to put in place a database state. This in turn is now forcing democrats back to re-think and secure the historic fundamentals of free citizenship with the principles of modern liberty.

But despite this I was still thinking in tick-boxes. (For another example see James Fishkin’s description of the four theories of democracy in his pioneering When the People Speak, where he sets out the case for the wisdom of deliberation.)

The abiding image that I took back with me is that democracy needs to be seen as something like a tree of life. It has roots, which head off in different directions. It can grow new branches. Strange beasts and distinct species, some that fly others of claw and cunning, can inhabit its branches. Only one of these – old and gnarled – is western parliamentary democracy. The trunk is the people themselves. 

Or as Sheth put it, “The universality of democracy lies in its continuous opening up of possibilities for human groups. It is a long-term process. It happened historically but its possibilities are realised in different ways by different people. It need not lead to the same kind of outcomes. Like a Jain concept it is one in the beginning and then becomes many.”

* * * * *

In the land of Gandhi you’d expect skepticism about the wonders of corporate capitalism. Rajni Bakshi was an energetic participant in the seminar and has just published Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom backed up by a website. She is for the market and its democracy but against a market society and market state. The book has a chapter on “Competing Compassionately”. Her influence may still be marginal in an India hypnotized by consumerism, but what strikes me reading her book back in London is that here is an attractive, 450 page paperback well produced by Penguin India, clearly more sweeping and thorough than the debate about ‘mutualism’ that has just started in the UK, in the dog days of New Labour.

In Mumbai, Rajni and Gulan Kripalani organized a meeting where I was questioned about openDemocracy, its origins and future under the auspices of Citizens for Peace. We compared web pages in the apartment of Dilip D’Souza who had himself just published Roadrunner with Harper Collins India – an attractive and personable account of his trips through the depths of America in the months before Obama’s election. “I’m not leftist, I’m not rightist, I’m a typist” is his moniker on his blog. What is boasted in the shallow glitz of Bollywood, that Indians can be at home across the world, from London to Idaho, in a way that is genuinely cosmopolitan, is true. Thanks to the extraordinary diversity of their own society, the world is their oyster and they leave most of us feeling definitely parochial.

* * * * *

Except that for India China looms large in a way that is all too familiar. I was in Mumbai on 26 January which is India’s National Day. A huge parade takes place in Delhi, opened by a ceremony for India’s dead in the wars with Pakistan, where the line up of troops carefully displays the country’s integration of different ethnic and religious traditions. I watched it on television. The capital was still swathed in exceptionally dense fog, the fly-past was cancelled, and one could barely see the new military kit trundling past. The next day there was a package on how China seeded the clouds to ensure fine weather for its 60th National Day parade. We Indians do not waste money in this way and respect the environment, went the commentary. It also alleged that massive snowstorms that later engulfed Beijing were caused by the same cloud seeding, which I’m not sure was true. I detected a note of envy behind the report, shouldn’t India also seek to control the weather like its competitor?

 * * * * *

The night before I left for London I went to see the famous Shabana Azmi in Broken Images, a play by Girish Karnad directed by Alyque Padamsee. It’s a one-woman show about a writer who has rocketed to world fame and is asked to talk about herself to camera. We also see her image on the screen. Then the image takes on a life of its own and the two start a ‘conversation’ with themselves in what becomes a sophisticated and shocking takeover.

I had assumed that it would be a meditation on the loss of identity thanks to the electronic media, the splitting of self and the weird narcissism of fame thanks to the autonomous power of the image. But this was already presumed. I am not sure there has been a play in the west that has been so advanced in its integration of the forces of the modern media into the dramatic form on stage. This was not the use of ‘special effects’ but a play about the penetrating impact of the media torrent as it plays with our souls.

What took place on stage and finally within the world of the screen was a brutal battle over who speaks for India. Who is authentic, or rather, who is not authentic: the English speaking or the Hindu; the crippled or the whole; the traditional or the electronic; useless husbands or true love? In his playwright’s note, Karnad refers to T. S. Eliot’s line in The Waste Land, “a heap of broken images”. But I found Robert Grave’s poem In Broken Images closer to the play: he who is “slow, thinking in broken images” finds a “new understanding of my confusion”.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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