In that great, mad scramble that’s India’s general elections, has there been a glacial pull towards a certain direction that is less visible than the flotsam-jetsam that’s carried with it? Common sense would suggest that the quality of polity and its practitioners have never been so awful. It’s hard to be in awe of Indian democracy when we are made to witness fisticuffs and vandals in sandals in state legislatures, not to mention the most unparliamentary business of Parliament not functioning at all over stretches.
But in all these growing acts of disruption and degeneration, made more palpable by manoeuvrings that thrive on the ‘We might be bad, but they are worse’ principle, parliamentary democracy in this country has reached a juncture where ‘going back’ will be so dramatic, so brazen, that it isn’t politically worthwhile for anybody. Over the decades, India has moved deeper and wider into representative democracy, an idea that was injected into our political bloodstream by the British colonial government that created electorates on the lines of community, caste and religion, which was mostly rejected by the Constitution of independent India in order to maintain the idea of equality.
The notion of people being represented, and thereby, served better by individuals ‘made in their own image’ is a powerful one, even if it’s not necessarily valid. A Doon School alumnus Naveen Patnaik has been as popular — and effective — a Chief Minister as a Bihar College of Engineering graduate Nitish Kumar. And an Akhilesh Yadav, for all his ‘closeness’ to his constituencies, is unlikely to hold on to the mammoth support he gained in the assembly elections two years ago. Political leaders have rarely been ma-baap-style custodians of the fortunes of the elite — except when required by the latter to facilitate matters. With no little thanks to the high-visibility political operations conducted by the Aam Aadmi Party, the janta class now realise the benefits of treating politicians and being treated by them similarly.
Representative politics received a boost in the early Nineties with the Mandalisation of politics. An impatient polity successfully drove home the structural drawbacks of an omnipresent, omni-caring dispensation: the Congress. As ‘Congress government’ and ‘Congress party’ became less synonymous, so did the notion that one party and its opposition are good enough to represent everyone: ‘the poor’, ‘industry’, ‘the middle-class’, ‘Muslims’, ‘the elite’, ‘the kisan’, ‘the tribals’, ‘Dalits’...
And if representative politics was a handy tool for a pre-1947 ‘divide and rule’ administration, it also proved to be a better way to identify support bases — advertised as lobby groups — for political parties, especially with the rise of decentralised, regional ones. So while the Congress and the Left continued to lag behind, practising their pan-national brand of ‘socialism’ based vaguely on class, parties such as the Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party became niche parties, selling their ‘targeted socialism’ along caste, community and religious lines. The BJP, of course, had its own line of ‘shakahari cuisine’ and trundled it into the political food court and tasted ‘kamandal’ success.
But over the last few Lok Sabhas, the lemon of pure identity-based politics has been squeezed dry. Caste and community demographics are now hardwired into every political party’s strategy, thereby diluting the appeal of the purveyors of pure identity politics. The pace of empowering electorates through representative politics has varied across India. This is primarily because of varying demographics and the actual quality of representation. What 2014 marks is the departure of depending solely on representative politics.
This, of course, doesn’t mean the annihilation of caste-based, religious or regional politics. If the BSP’s Mayawati is reaching out to an electorate beyond Dalits (UP’s Muslims could find her to be a serious alternative to a post-Muzaffarnagar Samajwadi Party dispensation), the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar is also going beyond his developmental-good governance mantra and dipping into the ‘secular’, ‘caste dynamics’ bag in a post-NDA, post-Lalu Yadav Bihar. The BJP’s style and substance now fixed to one mast, Narendra Modi’s sales pitch is to replicate on a bigger scale the effective governments of states like Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Gujarat without abandoning his ‘Hindu pride’ crypto-sex appeal.
Caste and class, like class and being Muslim in India, don’t coincide, but they do overlap extensively. The reluctance to bring in class through the front door of Indian politics is understandable. The divisions are simply too vast, too unwieldy. But the demand for a politics other than the representative kind can be heard over the din: the politics of participation.
Despite the rhetoric from every electoral hopeful, ‘Mein nahi, hum’ (‘Not I, But We’) is not as inviting as it sounds to everyone — certainly not to leaders such as Mayawati, Mamata and Modi who still see themselves solely as benefactors rather than empowered partners; and certainly not to those groups who fear the disenchanted classes replacing this traditional ‘giver-taker’ structure with a nightmarish ‘smash’n’grab’ one.
Participatory democracy will have an increasing number of citizens regularly contributing to decision-making about their own future through various referendums and show of hands, demanding implementation of laws and provide a support system for such implementations, and constantly providing a critical feedback stream to administration and civic bodies at various levels. In that respect, it’s a more universal version of the panchayati system that’s less imposed from the ‘top’.
Sure, it will have its fair share of bunglers and fifth columnists. But for our politicians — and even sceptical sections of our citizenry — to think that India is ‘not yet ready for this’ is to delay the inevitable and miss the political bus. At a juncture when more people than ever before want to be on that bus.
The author is a writer and journalist