Delhi elections: Liberals are hailing AAP's triumph, but Indian democracy's foundations have already crumbled
What passes for democracy in India is a colourless simulacrum of the thing itself: an argument over the possession of a power that has been gutted of all pretence that there ought to be some kind of equality amongst all those who participate in it.
Liberals have, this past day, been hailing the sweeping triumph of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in Delhi as evidence of the resilience and power of Indian democracy.
In truth, what passes for democracy in India is a colourless simulacrum of the thing itself: an argument over the possession of a power that has been gutted of all pretence that there ought to be some kind of equality amongst all those who participate in it.
The norms which govern India’s democracy are frayed; the institutions which sustain it decayed; perhaps most important, the ethical foundations on which it rests have crumbled.
“The great mass of the French nation,” wrote Karl Marx in his magisterial essay on the bizarre rise of emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, “is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.”
“A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family,” Marx continued. “A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department.” For this peasant class, Marx continued, their “representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above”.
Liberals have, this past day, been hailing the sweeping triumph of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in Delhi as evidence of the resilience and power of Indian democracy. Effective politics, the argument goes, has shown it has the power to defeat demagoguery. The Right will not dispute the core of this argument: triumphs of democracy lie ahead for it, too, in Bihar and, conceivably, even Bengal.
In truth, what passes for democracy in India is a colourless simulacrum of the thing itself: an argument over the possession of a power that has been gutted of all pretence that there ought to be some kind of equality amongst all those who participate in it. The norms which govern India’s democracy are frayed; the institutions which sustain it decayed; perhaps most important, the ethical foundations on which it rests have crumbled.
Looking out from our windows, we can see a world curiously similar to the France Marx observed in 1852 — and ought to be able to discern the dangers that lie ahead. Indian democracy isn’t winning.
In 1841, Louis-Napoléon — famous for a failed coup, his scandalous affair with the actress Elisabeth Félix, and for being the nephew of General Napoléon Bonaparte; a man, his foreign minister Drouyn de Lhuys held, of “immense desires and limited abilities” — was elected France’s first president, winning over 74 percent of the vote. He had successfully reached out to peasants fed up with rising prices, unemployed workers and small businessmen, promising to defend “religion, family, property, the eternal basis of all social order”.
Then, president Louis-Napoléon staged a coup against his own government and declared himself emperor Louis-Napoléon. Cheered on by the French public, he plunged into a series of wars — ending with utter humiliation at the hands of Prussia in 1870.
How did France come to acquiesce in the annihilation of its hard-won democracy? To Marx, the answer lay in the inadequate political culture of its largest group, the peasantry. “Their field of production, the small holding,” he argued, “permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships”.
Even though agglomerations of peasant families might share similar material interests, he argued, the “identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organisation among them”. Louis-Napoléon could thus emerge as their prophet, giving voice to their interests and their fantasies.
Like French peasants of the nineteenth century, Indian inhabit a narrow social universe: kinship, caste and ethnicity mark its frontiers, not ideology or their relationship with the state. Less than six percent of Indians, the scholars Tridip Ray, Arka Roy Chaudhuri and Komal Sahai have demonstrated, marry outside their own caste. Perhaps more important, the percentage who do so has remained more or less invariant for over four decades.
Enforced by the family and the khap, tradition remains the principal source of order, not law or the criminal justice system. Even judges of the High Courts, after all, believe rapists can be absolved of their crimes by marrying their victims.
To be sure, India is not a peasant society. Even though 833 million Indians (69 percent) live in rural areas, growing numbers are abandoning unsustainable small landholdings, either to work as agricultural labourers, or abandoning the countryside altogether for cities.
But in India’s cities, the old order has replicated itself. There is a large scholarly literature, Niranjan Sahoo has shown, demonstrating that “accelerated urbanisation, globalisation, transformations in employment structures — these have not aided to a significant degree in the dismantling of deep social and ethnic divides known to Indian society”.
The sheer scale of segregation, scholars Naveen Bharathi, Deepak Malghan and Anadaleeb Rahman note, challenges the bedrock assumption that “that urbanisation can help in remaking ethnically segregated physical spaces in an agrarian regime”.
Fractured by ethnicity, religion and caste: what passes for a social fabric is impossible to distinguish from a cluster of ghettos. India’s democracy has done served to amplify and entrench the authoritarian impulses this landscape breeds — not to temper them with new ideas and possibilities.
Their imaginations fired by the success of the freedom movement, Indian liberals had imagined tradition would be displaced by a new mythos: the values of secularism and egalitarianism institutionalised in the Constitution. This was, of course, fantasy: law and rights are artefacts of state power. There can no rule of law in fractured states; nor a well-ordered state exist without a political culture capable of sustaining it. The post-independence Indian state proved too anaemic to be an agent of transformation.
Figures assembled by the Institute of Conflict Management show India still does not have the elements needed for a well-ordered state. There are, for example, 1,622.8 government servants for every 1,00,000 residents. The United States of America has 7,681. The Central government, with 3.1 million employees, thus has 257 serving every 1,00,000 population, against the United States federal government’s 840.
In large swathes of the country, the state is simply in no position to even deliver education, health and social services. Bihar has just 457.60 public servants per 1,00,000, Madhya Pradesh 826.47, Uttar Pradesh has 801.67 — the bulk of them in non-executive roles. There aren’t enough teachers, or nurses, or sanitation workers, or police.
Ethnicities, religious communities or castes may enter into tactical alliances to capture these resources — but there is no social foundation for genuine solidarity built around shared values or ideas. There are few local democratic institutions, either, through which a wider identity might emerge, like elected school boards or public hearings on civic issues.
Few spaces exist for the kinds of popular culture that might engender a democratic culture: the working-man's clubs, reading rooms, pubs and music hall that historians like Gareth Steadman Jones have shown reshaped identity and consciousness through Europe’s industrial revolution.
In the decades after independence, the Congress-run political system institutionalised these dysfunctions — using the reactionary cleric, or the rural criminal-turned-caste-spokesperson, to mediate between their community and the state. The collusion of the Congress with Islamists in Kashmir, Khalistanis in Punjab or Hindu nationalists has no small role in the rise and perpetuation of these crises.
Long before Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Parvesh Verma claimed that Shaheen Bagh protestors “will enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, kill them”, union minister Babu Jagjivan Ram described Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 election triumph as “a vote for Hindu India”. Muslims, he went on, had no choice but to vote Congress, “because they have to live in this country”. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself asserted that the Hindu “religion and traditions” were under attack.
Shaheen Bagh religious reactionary Sharjeel Imam’s much-condemned advocacy of a Muslim insurrection to blockade Assam because a “massacre is taking place over there” is, thus, remarkable only in their banality. From ethnic-Meitis blockading roads into Nagaland, to Jat caste agitators shutting down blocking highways into Delhi and the communally-charged violence in Murshidabad, chauvinist violence has become the principal language of the Indian republic’s political life.
For the Indian state, for political parties, and for citizens, this should be a cause for grave concern. Francesco Guicciardini, Machiavelli’s friend and critic, knew that the alternative to politics — the business of choosing the possible over the seduction of utopia — was unending war. “We fight to great disadvantage when we fight with those who have nothing to lose,” he warned.
Louis-Napoléon’s ghost has risen over India more than once: the excesses of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency serves, among other things, to hide how half-formed Indian democracy has always been. The story of the ersatz emperor should warn us that our republic’s survival ought not, and cannot, be taken for granted.
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