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Reflections on Indian democracy



Published with the kind permission of the author

The claim that Modi’s victory will create a populist authoritarianregime is maladroit 

In 1990, the American Academy of Arts and Science(AAAS) asked me to write a paper on the economicimpact of Hindu fundamentalism for its massiveFundamentalism project. Not having any contacts inthe Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when I arrived in NewDelhi I contacted my old friend Vinod Pandey whowas the cabinet secretary. He put me in touch with L KAdvani and Subramanian Swamy who provided mewith contacts and literature to conduct my research.He also put me in touch with VP Singh who was headinga minority Janata Dal government with outside supportfrom the BJP and the Left.

The first thing Advani said to me was that withno central church or central dogmathere were no religious fundamentalswhich could be used to identifyor organise a Hindu fundamentalistmovement. Hinduism was a way oflife, and hence the BJP in line withvarious Hindu revivalist movementswas promoting Hindu culturalnationalism in the face of alien ruleby Muslims and the British since1000 AD. Hence, my paper wastitled, The Economic Impact ofHindu Revivalism (in Martin EMarty and R Scott Appelby (eds)Fundamentalism and the StateChicago, 1993). I had commended SubramanianSwamy’s paper, Agenda for National Revival, whichargued for a market economy. But Mr Advani statedthat there were still no votes for it. As Congress andthe Janata party had taken up the cause of the “havenots”the only recourse for the BJP, after its disastrousdefeat in the 1984 elections was to play thecard of Hindu revivalism. Thence the programmefor the Ram Mandir.

Meanwhile, to shore up his fragile government,V P Singh had implemented the Mandal report.When I admonished him — over drinks with Vinod Pandey — that this was mad, he replied that “I ammad”. As many commentators including M NSrinivas (Village, Caste, Gender and Method, OUP1996) pointed out, the resulting expansion of reservationswould balkanise the country and lead to theemigration of its best and brightest. As my fellowBS columnist Shekhar Gupta has noted in his lastcolumn, the BJP, which has always been againstcaste-based reservations, as they divide the “Hindurashtra”, has in this last election succeeded indestroying the caste-based vote banks flowing fromMandal by defeating the mahagathbandhans in UPand Bihar. This is the great achievement of Modi’svictory.

This also highlights how politicalentrepreneurs in a democracycan alter the dynamics to emasculatedysfunctional policies. Modiand Shah recognised the importanceof the new young neo-middleclass of Other Backward Classes’migrating from the villages. They,as Minna Saavala has shown (inMiddle Class Moralities OrientBlackswan, 2012) , are an aspiringclass whose caste identity has beeneroded. They want growth for abrighter economic future. They areintensely religious adhering to Hindu rituals in aform of Sanskritisation. Like their upper caste compatriots,they want a meritocracy and are againstreservations. They are attracted by Modi’s slogan of“development not doles”. They are part of theGandhian wing of Macaulay’s children (identifiedin my column, Macaulay’s Children (September2007), for whom, unlike the other Nehruvian wing,English is an instrumental second language. As Ihave argued in my Ohlin lectures, UnintendedConsequences, (MIT,2001) cosmological beliefs abouthow one should live are determined by mother tongues, which for the neo-middle class are theirnative languages endorsing tradition. So the cosmologicalbeliefs of the English speakingWesternised middle classes carry little weight withthem, including various forms of noblesse obligedisguised as egalitarianism as in Congress’ NYAYproposal. Instead, the BJP’s adoption of the socialprogrammes of the South Indian pioneersKarunanidhi and Jayalalitha of providing direct benefitsin kind— toilets, gas cylinders, electricity, bankaccounts etc — have resonance.

Many commentators and political scientists areclaiming (see Christophe Jaffrelot et. al. MajoritarianState, Harper Collins, 2019 ) that Modi’s victory willdestroy democracy and create a populist majoritarianauthoritarian regime under Modi as a “neo-sultan”.This is maladroit. As I argued in my column,On Populism (11 Nov. 2016), following S E Finer’smagisterial study The History of Government, theEnlightenment principle of popular sovereigntylegitimising political authority led to two forms ofpolity. The first based on an English foundation wasprovided by the US Constitution, creating a representativebut not a direct democracy, with variouschecks and balances embodying the classical liberalprinciple of limited government. The other was anauthoritarian form of direct democracy advocatedby Rousseau and adopted by many continentalcountries, which led to populist totalitarian democraciesunder Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini. Indiahas adopted the representative Anglo-American versionwhich unlike many other developing countrieshas survived for over 70 years.

This as I have argued in my The HinduEquilibrium(OUP, 2005) is due to ancient politicalhabits set in the vast fertile Indo-Gangetic plain protectedby the Himalayas which led to endemic politicalinstability, and the need to tie scarce labour toland for its labour intensive plough agriculture. Thiswas done by its unique social system of caste, whichby making war the trade of professionals, saved themass of the population from being inducted intothe deadly disputes of its changing rulers, while thetradition of paying a certain customary share of thevillage output as revenue to the current overlordmeant that any victor had little incentive to disturbthe daily business of its newly acquired subjects.The democratic practices gradually introduced bythe British have fit these ancient political habits likea glove. The ballot box has replaced the battlefieldfor the hurly-burly of continuing political conflict,while the populace accepts with a weary resignationthat its rulers will, through various forms of rentseeking,take a certain share of output to feathertheir own nest.

Furthermore, since the establishment of thenumerous feuding monarchies in the Indo-Gangeticplain, the lodestone of every petty chieftain has beenthe establishment of a pan-north Indian or subcontinentalempire. This chakravartin tradition continuesin democratic India, first under the Congresshegemony of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and is nowemergent under the BJP after Modi’s historic electionvictory. This is not “neo-sultanism” but a partof ancient Indian political habits, which have alsomade liberal democracy the habitual political formin contemporary India.

Source: Business Standard