Dispatch #40: The age of political naivety (Part 1)

In this dispatch I will be sharing some of my old writings which I had submitted as assignments during my post-graduation

I call that time as ‘the age of political naivety’ because as I was learning political philosophy for the first time, I was continuously trying to relate some of the theories with contemporary events. Some of them seemed to make sense, most did not.

Politics in India was my favorite subject. I would make a point to complete all the required readings before the class. I would stay up late at night. With bleary eyes I would sit through the lecture and tried to grasp as much as I can from my supremely learned professors.

I remember once we were discussing Partha Chatterjee’s ‘Passive Revolution’ in the class. I had read the essay twice. Though not much made sense to me since it’s a very intense essay, but I had a fair sense of the central arguments. I had also read some criticisms of that essay by equally erudite scholars of political science . When my professor asked me what I think about Chatterjee’s essay, I first summed up his key arguments and then spoke about the criticisms of the essay as well. My professor appreciated how I engaged with the essay, well beyond the required reading. It was after this incident, I started reading political philosophy and politics in India more carefully with intent to think critically.

Over the years my reading of politics has moved form reading collection of essays by Maria Misra, Edward Luce, Patrick French, Khilnani and others to academic literature on Indian politics with a special focus on distributive politics and political economy.

Here are some of my writings of that phase when I was learning this discipline.

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Is Politics unnecessary in a society of beasts or gods?

‘We do not say that a man who shows no interest in politics is a man, who minds his own business,We say that he has no business here at all’

(Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides, The Pelopoponnesian War)

In his book ‘The Introduction to Political Philosophy’, Jonathan Wolf draws a relation between politics and power. He questions whether it is legitimate that one person can be subjugated by other person. Can a person voluntarily submit his or her will to another person and delegate power to the others to rule? He writes, ‘Are there any justified limits to my liberty? And what should be the relation between political power and economic success? In some countries few obtain political power unless they are already wealthy. In others those who gain political power soon find themselves rich. But should there be any connection at all between possession of wealth and enjoyment of political power?

According to Wolf if a particular individual has political power over others then he can make them work according to his wishes. What troubles and outrage him is the fact that ‘how could another person justify the claims to have such rights over me’. For Wolf it’s not fair that someone else should tell a person what to do and what not to do, and in the eventuality of breaking the rule one is also entitled for punitive action. However Wolf looks at this argument from the other side of the table as well. He says that if individuals are left unrestrained without any mechanisms of law and order in place then that could also cause a lot of chaos and anarchy. And it is this perspective which allows him to place a mechanism in the society that ensures checks and balances. He names it the ‘political power’.

Thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes also advocated the legitimacy and necessity of political power in human society. If Hobbes was apprehensive about the ‘state of nature’ where there was no political power and the society ran the risk of moving towards anarchy, then on the other hand Aristotle explained politics as a partnership between various sections of the society. Both the thinkers established their arguments by looking at the interaction between the human society and the politics.

No political philosophers have ever tried to explain whether politics is necessary in the world of gods and beasts. One reason could be that as humans we have always bowed down to the powers of the Almighty which in itself is an expression of politics. In my opinion politics is necessary in the society of gods and beasts.In the next few sections of the essay I will try to place my arguments for the necessity of politics in such societies.

Since gods, beasts and monsters are prevalent in all mythologies across the world, I will, for the sake of this essay, will refer their society as mythological society or mythology. I will also try to draw some analogies between the Indian mythology and the writings of Hobbes and Aristotle.

We have often heard in mythology that few mythological characters are stronger than the others. The divine powers of some characters are more than that of the others. Whenever there is a power hierarchy in any society (human/mythological) there should be a proper distribution of autonomy and authority. To ensure this distribution we need a mechanism, that is political power. Without this distribution there would be anarchy and violence where the more powerful will dominate the lesser powerful.

An interesting question could be that what rule or procedure should govern the redistribution of political power. The answer to this question lies in the motivation and the behavior of the stake holders (in this case the mythological characters). Humans have always looked up to them to restore peace and prosperity on earth. They are the supreme beings and hence it is up to them to define a proper norm for the power distribution among themselves. This norm, whatever form it will have, will form the basis of political power.

Let us, for our argument’s sake consider that there is a ‘state of nature’ in the world of mythology. That there are no political institutions; no law and order and hence no distribution of political power. The people in that world are not compelled to listen to others and there is a complete lack of fraternity among the individuals. Can we ever think of a situation like this where the supreme beings are living in primordial conditions and in a society even remotely resembling to modern societies; whereas on the other hand the lesser mortals, the humans are living in a world where such structures are more or less in place.

It was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who feared that post English Civil War his country is falling into the state of nature. Through his writings in Leviathan he tried to pursue the readers that how illogical proposition it is to think of a society without a government or political power. Hobbes extends his argument by asking a very pertinent question of what a society would look like without any government.  Jonathan Wolf tries to answer this question by saying that maybe we would cease to be human beings in the first place. Here it is very interesting to notice that Wolf says that in the state of nature human beings would be a lower form of animal. He never says that human beings will become supreme beings, thus validating the fact that supreme beings do need a government and distribution of power and that the mythological societies can never be in the state of nature.

Hobbes’s view is that in the absence of government, human society will collapse into a brutal conflict. Hence there has to be a power or an authority to prevent this conflict by delivering the law of the land.

Aristotle takes the argument to another level where he suggests that politics is a form of partnership. According to him any political community is a partnership and all its stakeholders pursue a common good. He traces this notion of partnership to the antiquity where man and woman came together for companionship and to procreate. He also cites example of the relation between the master and the slave where the salve takes back the exploits of his labor and the master gets his work done. The intention is not to perpetuate the master-slave relationship but to emphasize the fact that both master and slave need each other. These pairs came together to form family, then communities, then villages and later to the city states. If we look at the mythological world the same notion of partnership exist there also.

In conclusion I would like to say that whether it is the human society or the mythological society of Gods and monsters, politics is necessary as it establish the framework of checks and balances. It is the political authority that doesn’t allow the power to concentrate to a certain section of the society but helps devolving the power to the lowest level of the pyramid.

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Has the deepening of democracy in India caused a fundamental shift in the state’s approach to development?

“In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

B. R. Ambedkar , 1949

There is a very intricate relationship between democracy and development. At times both the processes support and help each other; while at times one would act as a precondition for the other. In Southeast Asian economies development created conditions for the citizens to demand for more freedom and rights, however in India, democracy , adult franchise and economic development , all began ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’.

Unlike Western development, India’s tryst with development followed an entirely different trajectory. In the west before the transformation into modern democracies, three crucial socio-political and economic churning happened: capitalism introduced a strict production regime; secularism ended mutual conflicts between religious groups and civil society emerged that started advocating for rights for individuals cutting across the communities. The capitalism in Europe of the 17th century helped dissolving the group identities and replaced it with the idea of civil society. In India it took decades for the idea of civil society, civil rights movements, social interventions and citizens groups, to find its place in a democratic setup. 

The process of deepening of democracy in India cannot be defined only in terms of political mobilization. As democracy matured in India, it took various avenues for Indian citizenry to assert itself. The expressions of assertion were many: electoral politics, grassroots movements to mobilize people and mobilization on the basis of identities. It would be wise to accept that these expressions do not always culminate into the outcomes for which they were intended to. Due to bad political management and lack of sustainability these mobilizations increased the crisis of governability. However, no one can deny that the process of deepening democracy has enabled groups and communities in Indian society to embark on the path of development. One should also keep in mind who these groups are? They are the marginalized sections of the society for whom access to state resources was a distant dream. It’s the democratic processes that have enabled them to become a stakeholder of India's story.

In this essay I will argue how democracy and development worked in tandem in India and how it transformed not only the society but also the political dynamics of India. In the first part of the essay I will discuss how political mobilization in India gave voice to the weaker sections of the society to demand from the state what they deserve and require. The essay accepts the fact that not everything was constructive about this mobilization and due to the governability crisis the legislation could not perform the policy making process. Lack of legislation resulted in resentment among the masses because their aspirations were unmet. It was at this point that other players- Supreme Court, NAC and other civil rights bodies jumped into the fray. The essay will also touch upon the issue of risks that these un-elected bodies have when they become a part of law making.

Political Mobilization:

The decline of Congress, as an umbrella party of political ideologies of all hues, created a vacuum. The power gradually shifted from the Centre to the states. The political actors that emerged after the fall of Congress never mobilized masses on the basis of ‘interests’ but ‘identities’. Although with democracy in India, modernity also made inroads into the Indian society but it failed to instill the idea of individuation which was the cornerstone of civil society. Hence the feeling of disadvantage was more collective than individual. Sudipta Kaviraj explains this phenomenon with great clarity:

Disadvantage is seen more as unjust treatment of whole communities, such as lower castes, minority religious groups and tribal communities which are thus seen as potential political factors

Hence in the process of political mobilization the group priorities took over the individual grievances. Kaviraj adds:

“Democratic participation has thus created a new stage in which a distributive game is being played within which the primary actors are neither individuals nor their interest based combinations, such as trade unions, chambers of commerce or more issue based groups. Social groups based on identity, either in terms of the caste system, or regions, and not impermanent interest coalitions are the primary actors; individuals belonging to those groups are incidental beneficiaries of successful political actions”.

Indeed individuals from those groups are usually the beneficiaries when caste politics trumps class politics. Indian state is an interventionist state and apart from imparting growth to the economics of the country, socio-economic equality is also a state imperative. When an interventionist state sets out in the journey of socio-economic justice, it becomes a monolithic structure with all the state resources at its disposal. It is this character of the state that attracts the leaders who pander to the group identities. It is the dole outs which they distribute to their interest groups, from the state repository of resources that establishes their legitimacy to power.

Kaviraj explains this politics as more concerned with ‘external equity’ than ‘internal equity’. He writes: 

“The net effect of this kind of politics, which energizes relatively unprivileged groups to make immediate demands on the state, is in a sense to increase the centrality of the state to all social processes.”

This assertion by the unprivileged groups has eradicated and undermined the traditional identities of caste and religion. The domination of the higher castes has been undermined further by the new “patterns of division of labor” and spread of commerce. 

Pranab Bardhan describes this phenomenon as: 

“This is not surprising in a country where the self assertion of newly mobilized groups in an extremely hierarchical society takes the form of long suppressed, group specific expression and of clamoring for protected group niches, where small people constitute an overwhelming majority of the population and their ranks are swelled by the inexorable demographic pressure.”

Hence democratic electoral politics has given leverage and voice to the sections of the society that were historically oppressed, marginalized and whose voices were feeble enough to reach the corridors of power and the epicenters of policy making.

The political mobilization combined with the ‘deinstitutionalizing role of national leaders’ and ‘weak political institutions’ have increased undisciplined political competition resulting in India’s growing crisis of governability. The crisis not only hampered governability but it also resulted in fractured politics where reaching to a consensus became a distant dream. The outcome of this paralysis was that the legislative body could not make laws and the law making process started to drift towards new avenues.

New Avenues of legislation:

The deepening of democracy also created negative outcomes. Political cacophony is one of them. In the era of competitive politics where consensus building is hard to find space, political management within and outside the party saps away most of the energy and law making amidst constructive debates takes the back seat. This has resulted in low productivity of the Parliament.

The recurring disruption of Parliament by the opposition over trivial issues, bargaining capacity of the regional parties from the Centre, political conflicts with the coalitions and fractured policy making has dented the image of Parliament which is the highest seat of law making in India. Unfortunately the vacuum is filled by the players who are not elected by the people and are not accountable to them. 

The hyperactive Supreme Court after Emergency ensured that all the wrongs done during the darkest hours of Indian democracy would be reversed by it. Hence it donned the mantle of activist court and came out with legislations that concerned the environment, human rights, hunger and custodial killings. The judicial activism of the apex court along with the rampant inequality due to half hearted reforms created an environment for India’s right based welfare infrastructure. The distinctive feature of the rights based entitlement legislations, according to Sanjay Ruparelia, is to “promote greater political transparency, responsiveness and accountability.”

The apex court expanded its purview and started interpreting socio-economic needs as an integral part of Article 21 of the Constitution, which recognizes the fundamental right to life. The Public Interest Litigation proved to be a weapon in the hands of common man to access the courts in the eventuality of his fundamental rights being encroached.

High judicial activism coincided with the rise of civil society organizations and grassroots social campaigns which were at the forefront of people’s resistance movements. Organizations like Narmada Bachao Aandolan, PUCl, PUDR , Centre for Science and Education and PRATHAM redefined the rules of democracy where they along with the courts of India started becoming a part of the legislative process. Unelected bodies like the National Advisory Council spearheaded the social sector agenda of the UPA coalition. Legislations like Right to Education, Right to Information act, NREGA, Food Security Ordinance, Forest Rights Act are the outcomes of the collaboration of the above mentioned unelected bodies. 

However there is one caveat for this kind of law making. Contrary to what Montesquieu said about the division of power, these bodies, especially the judiciary, are seldom encroaching upon the legislative by crossing its mandate of interpretation of law.  

Conclusion:

Hence we can see that democracy and development are intertwined to each other. In Indian context it is very hard to say which of them a precursor of the other is. The entrenchment of democratic ideals in our society has enabled every individual irrespective of community allegiance to become a part of the growth story of India. The political awakening amongst the oppressed and marginalized classes has enabled them to exercise their electoral power and elect the party that carries their aspirations and voices inside the Parliament. Dalits, OBCs, tribals, minorities have representations in Parliament and also in state legislatures where they can push for reforms for the people who have shown trust in them. The Supreme Court and other civil rights organizations act as watchdog and in any eventuality of encroachment of fundamental rights or undermining of the Constitution; they can question the legislative authority. 

The deepening of democracy has had an immense impact in the state’s approach to development. The state can no longer pander to the demands of the elite. 

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