by Andre Beteille, Telegraph; Jan 03, 2012
More than sixty years after the attainment of Independence, democracy has come to stay in India. Today, this is widely acknowledged both within and outside the country. At the same time, it must be admitted that it has now entered troubled waters, and there is little sign that it will steer its way out of those waters soon. The institutions of democracy, such as Parliament, the Supreme Court, the cabinet and the major political parties, are not working well.
One cannot realistically expect that democracy will take the same path in all countries in view of the great demographic, economic and cultural variations among them. Many reflective Indians are worried about the disorder in the institutions of democracy, but they also feel that the spirit of democracy will somehow survive in India. But the belief that democracy is India’s destiny can easily lead to complacency and a slow drift into increasing disorder.
It hardly needs to be said that democracy was nowhere built in a day, or a decade, or even a century; and, indeed, the process of building democracy is never completed. Not only did that process not begin at the same time in all countries, but the different countries of the world did not all follow the same trajectory in seeking a way to it. It is in the differences in the trajectories followed by the different countries in their pursuit of democracy that I am mainly interested here.
In the West — in Britain and France — democracy grew by confronting a succession of internal contradictions in economy and society. Its growth was accompanied by a process of social and economic churning that reached into every sphere of life and every corner of the country. Such a process of churning, leading to the replacement of old institutions by new ones, did not take place in India and, where it did take place, its effects did not reach very far. It is this that led B.R. Ambedkar to say in the Constituent Assembly that democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil that is essentially undemocratic. The soil had not been turned up sufficiently when democracy came to be adopted by a single giant step, as it were.
In India, the argument for democracy came to be adopted before its institutions were created and established on secure foundations. That argument was given shape more as a challenge to colonial rule than as a plea for turning up the Indian soil. The argument for democracy emerged as the other side of the argument against colonial rule. The leaders of the nationalist movement could hardly argue the case for freedom if they did not also argue that only freedom from colonial rule would enable them to establish democracy in India. The British may have found the nationalist argument opportunistic, but they had no real answer for it. The argument for freedom had an immediate and a dramatic appeal.
It is remarkable how quickly the leaders of the nationalist movement learnt the argument for democracy and how effectively they used it against their colonial masters. India’s Brahminical intelligentsia had always excelled in the arts of argumentation. Their intellectual tradition, which had stagnated for generations, was brought back to new life in the universities and law colleges that were started in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and elsewhere. They absorbed the writings of Locke, Bentham, Mill, Comte and Spencer. In the universities and colleges, they learned to become positivists, rationalists, liberals and radicals. They mastered the arguments for and against self-rule and alien rule.
In these circumstances, democracy came to be seen by the emerging nationalist leadership as a matter more of ideals and values than of practices and institutions. Indians have had a natural propensity to believe that they have solved a problem in the real world when they have solved it in their minds; there is little appreciation of the obduracy and recalcitrance of social facts.
It is not that no attempts were made to adopt new practices and institutions at the provincial and even the municipal levels. But the councils and assemblies that were created worked under the supervision and control of the government. The Indian members spent as much time in asking for more powers as in getting the work done. An adversarial attitude between those in office and those outside, understandable in a colonial system, prevented the development of a spirit of give-and-take in the organs of governance.
The deeper reason for the lacklustre performance of our democratic institutions is that their adoption was not accompanied by the kind of social and economic churning that operated in the West over an extended period. In the West, that churning led not only to the adoption of new institutions but also to the elimination of old, archaic and obsolete ones; the elimination of the old was as important as the adoption of the new.
One must not underestimate the challenges posed by the old social order based on kinship, caste and community in a society as vast and diverse as ours. Perhaps there is something deeply ingrained in our cultural tradition that allows us to live with the old and the new even when they do not fit well together. The anthropologist and writer, Irawati Karve, called this the principle of accretion. She wrote, “The historical process is one of continuous accretion. There does not seem to be a stage where a choice was made between alternatives, a choice involving acceptance of one alternative and a definite, final rejection of the others.” Instead of applying ourselves to those choices with determination, we spun endless arguments about the virtues of equality, liberty, social justice and human rights.
Whatever the reasons may be for the failure to devote ourselves fully to the creation of new institutions, we must recognize that the arguments about the virtues of democracy that served us well during the struggle for independence are not enough to bind us together now that we have become independent. We continue to argue about the lofty ideals of democracy in Parliament as if we still have a colonial government to dislodge. We do not worry very much when this leads to turmoil because we believe that the argument can always be continued outside of Parliament. Certainly, the spirit of democracy is of utmost importance, but it is unlikely that it can be sustained for very long independently of the institutions of democracy.
I have already referred to our great intellectual tradition and the pride of place given in it to logic and dialectic. Our zest for argumentation is unparalleled. We pride ourselves on being argumentative. We argue in season and out of season, and when we argue, we do not pay much heed to what others are saying. This is seen regularly in Parliament, where it is uncommon to find one person speaking and the others listening; the common practice is for two or three persons to be arguing at the same time. It is hard to hold an Indian back from exercising his right to be argumentative. This may well be a salutary expression of the spirit of democracy, but today it is undermining one of the critical institutions of democracy.