Indian democracy has been sailing through troubled waters in the last couple of decades. It is not that there were no problems in the first quarter century after independence. But these problems began to show an increasingly acute form with Emergency and its aftermath. Within a short span of five years, the people of India experienced the two most fundamental threats to the democratic form of governance: authoritarianism and its twin, anarchy.
The success of democracy depends upon a number of different factors among which good laws of great significance. The Constitution of India provides a very comprehensive framework for such laws. No Constitution, no matter how carefully designed, can be perfect or can anticipate every exigency that is likely to arise in the life of a nation. Our Constitution has had to accommodate some eighty amendments in the course of less than fifty years. In addition, there has been a plethora of legislation to facilitate the smooth and efficient working of democracy.
How suitable each of these laws might be in its own context, the increasing volume of legislation has not led to any marked improvement in the working of democracy. Some have begun to feel that creating new laws piecemeal to meet each passing exigency can only deepen the crisis of governance. What is required, they believe, is a comprehensive review of the Constitution which alone can show a way out of the crisis. It is said in particular that the parliamentary system of government, well suited though it might be to a small and homogeneous country like Britain, cannot work smoothly in a large, complex and highly differentiated society such as ours. Hence for democracy to work well in India, news laws will have to created that will change the very structure of governance.
The success of democracy or, indeed, of any social institution, depends not only on good laws but also on favorable customs. It is these customs that give expression to the habits of the heart, so to say, and if only the laws change, leaving the customs as they were, no new form of governance can be expected to achieve its objective. At the time of Independence all the effort was concentrated on the creation of a good Constitution and good laws, as it was hoped that these would set the pace for the required changes in established attitudes and sentiments. Not enough thought was given to the inertia and obduracy of customs. Legislators, judges, and lawyers all spoke boldly and clearly in favor of new and progressive laws. The sociologist who knew something of the obduracy of customs had but a small voice in the affairs of nation; and they held their peace for being labeled as conservative and backward-looking.
Today, the gap between law and custom remains as wide as it was fifty years ago, and its implications are still not taken seriously by the intelligentsia. Nowhere is the gap between the two is more glaring than in the context of the equality. This is of some significance here since equality is inseparably linked to the very idea of democracy. While all democratic system make some concessions to various forms of inequality, no democracy can function effectively without a certain basic equality in human relations. In India, the laws are all on the side of equality, but the custom put almost its entire weight on the opposite side.
It has been said that the guarantees of equality in the Constitution of India adds up to more than the guarantees in the British and the US Constitutions taken together. Yet everyday social life is still governed substantially by hierarchical attitudes and sentiments carried over from the past. The awe for those who are superior by birth or social custom and the contempt towards the social inferiors are equally widespread in the rural and the urban areas, and among the educated and uneducated. In politics in particular, the relations between leader and the follower are marked by deference and submissiveness to an unusual degree, and this makes the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions impossible. Here, as in may other matters, the Congress party is the best exemplar of our political culture. For this the blame can not lie alone with a single individual or family; it lies with leaders and followers alike.
The habits of deference and submissiveness must not be confused with civility which is a very different thing and an invaluable asset for democracy. Deference and submissiveness towards the leaders of one’s party, faction or group are usually accompanied by rude, intemperate and abusive conduct towards political adversaries. Both type of conduct are now on regular display on our various television channels.
The success of democracy requires a certain commitment to impersonal rules and a certain willingness to be governed by them, irrespective of immediate consequences. Our customs give greater weight to persons than to rules : personal attachments, loyalties, grievances and animosities often become decisive. Explaining her vote in the no-confidence notion on 17 April, the leader of [BSP] said that, although she did not reveal her mind during the debate, she had decided well in advance to vote against Vajpayee in order to give a fitting reply to the BJP for what it has done to her and her party in Uttar Pradesh. Her conduct was in line with the age-old customs of village politics; it is doubtful that those customs are conducive to the working of a modern democracy.
More than hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville had pointed out in his great work, Democracy in America, that good customs contribute more to the success of democracy than good laws. He had compared the Americans favorably with his own countrymen, the French. He said the French were adept at making laws but their customs were not as beneficial as those of the Americans, which was why democracy was more vigorous in America than in France. We are, if anything, are more adept than the French at making laws, but our customs hold us back more strongly. Good laws are indeed indispensable, but the mere multiplication of laws without any thought for the inertia and obduracy of custom is not likely to lead us out of the troubled waters in which we found ourselves today.
April 29, 1999; The Times of India
Born to a French father and a Bengali mother, Andre Beteille grew up in West Bengal. He was an Indian who has no caste. He studied Physics during his under-graduation and then Paleontology for post-graduation in Kolkata. After a brief stint at Indian Statistical Institute, he moved to newly created Dept. of Sociology where he was appointed a lecturer in Delhi School of Economics by a sympathetic M. N. Srinivas.
He is a National Research Professor and one of the most respected figure in the world of social anthropology. His work mainly deals with institutes and social stratification. Collection of his newspaper articles are available in two books, ‘Chronicles of our time’, and ‘Ideology and social science’. He occasionally writes for Chennai based The Hindu, Kolkata based Telegraph and Delhi based Times of India.