What is the relationship between the citizen elite and democracy?
When we talk about democracy, the general impression is that all the good things that have happened in the last 140 years is because of popular pressure. So, whenever democracy advances it’s because of upsurge from the masses. I was a believer of that till I began to look at it closely and realised that the markers of democracy came about by elite intervention as much as popular pressure.
Most of these policies like abolition of child labour, and opening up of trade happened because of intervention from above. It would be incorrect to argue that the citizen elite sit in ivory towers and legislate.
To be a real intellectual, you have to engage with events. That means having a larger vision. Mannheim said that intellectuals should never join political parties. You become inflexible, rigid in your thinking. An intellectual is supposed to constantly move with the times — an ideal we aspire to.
Who qualifies as the citizen elite?
It’s not the business elite, the corporate elite, the academic elite. A citizen elite is as a citizen elite does. Just because you are born in a certain class doesn’t make you citizen elite. For that you have to do something... I’m talking about the elite who intervene in policies and politics, doing good for people as a whole - not one section or the other. The citizen elite don’t have to be people who are in politics. But they should be people involved with politics and in the making of policies.
Do Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal qualify as the citizen elite?
I wouldn’t call them citizen elite — not because I don’t like them — or I don’t support their policies. I was a great supporter of Anna for a long time till he said something that put me off.
What was that?
I was there at Ramlila Maidan for his fast and I was also telecasting for television. I was pretty euphoric at that time. I didn’t consider Anna a citizen elite even then but felt something was happening. At that pinnacle of his fame and power, a little girl gave him lemonade to drink when he broke his fast and Anna said something like:
“If you want to take this movement forward, study me, emulate me.” Then I said to myself as well as on TV that till one second ago, I was a supporter of this man. I realised in that moment that he was pushing his egotistical side forward. I certainly don’t want to be like him. I went there for anti-corruption, not to endorse right to recall and so on as Anna urged.
The citizen elite push for certain policies that deepen democracy and citizenship. Anna Hazare probably set in motion something like that. But in his scheme of things, it was a protest to point out that the law wasn’t delivering — so let’s make the law more deliverable and transparent. There was nothing new coming up in terms of policies. You should use your anger and focus on policies.
For instance, Gandhi talked about untouchability when no one else was talking about it. It was his idea which he wove with other ideas like land to tiller, anti-landlordism etc. Nehru said that Hindu males can’t be polygamous — the Hindu Marriage Act, for instance. But side by side, he also worked for zamindari abolition, building dams, making doctors, engineers, building secularism. When India became independent, the population of this city increased three times due to refugees.
They were all very angry — very anti-Nehru, anti-Gandhi. But Nehru won elections for 20 years. Privately they liked the Hindu Mahasabha boys, but yet voted Nehru. Because he had a plan, a vision – he wasn’t simply working on hurt.
Where do you situate mass protests like the upsurge following December 16 gang-rape?
The anti-rape agitation could be seen as just anger. What happened on Dec 16 upset everyone. But not everyone was out on the streets because of rape. The coalescence was propelled by several other factors. How do you translate such anger? It doesn’t happen in one go. But at such critical times — as seen throughout history — there’s always one figure rallying people around him/her.
Had justice JS Verma not been there, so many people wouldn’t have come together. The anger was translated into policies. These people played an important role — mediating anger into concrete policies. Like the suffrage movement, the anti-rape movement too was led by elites.
Can you cite representatives of the citizen elite?
Justice Verma... In terms of taking the society forward you need to have a vision, not necessarily be just well read. You and I can hope to have that vision once someone else puts it in place.
Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy?
Yes, though you may or may not agree with them. Roy is a major intellectual force behind the right to information movement. You need someone like that no matter what she says. The reason why the bulk of us don’t put this pressure is because we think we are too small in number. What I want to say is that it’s this small number of people who constitute a very important role in society. Their role shouldn’t be undermined.
Why not Arvind Kejriwal?
I’m not so sure about Kejriwal’s RTI thing today. What I find very pleasing about him is his personal integrity. I’m not sure that his policies are taking him anywhere. As an activist, his role is very important.
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