Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1198, (22 - 28 May 2014)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1198, (22 - 28 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

India’s daring and devilish democracy

Gurcharan Das, India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State, Penguin Books India, 2012

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

“My Egyptian adventure left me feeling that warts and all, India had done reasonably well on balance, a thought that did not sit easily when I was up close to India’s corruption and red tape. Although both India and Egypt were powerful societies with fragile states, their histories and backgrounds were unique. But both needed to strengthen the rule of law. Egypt had a highly efficient internal security apparatus but could not execute simple tasks like processing visa applications or licensing small businesses efficiently,” distinguished and internationally acclaimed Indian author Gurcharan Das draws parallels, compares and contrasts the Indian and Egyptian experiments with democracy.
 
“My visit to Egypt brought about a change in my perspective. I had been too close to India and too impatient with its deficiencies, But after seeing the yearning for democracy in Tahrir Square, I felt that the persistence of democracy in India was an extraordinary achievement. India had held free and fair elections without interruption for sixty-five years. Of its 3.5 million village legislators, 1.2 million were women, who ruled over the world’s most diverse country peacefully,” Das observes.
 
India is not necessarily the ideal democracy as Das makes clear. “The rule of law began to weaken in India in the 1970s as a result of Indira Gandhi’s populist and patronage politics. Although it inherited at Independence the institutions of a strong state, India has historically had a weak state,” the author notes in his introduction. After this, I realised that what I took to be Das’s book’s flaws were actually its strengths, for I had leafed through the pages as I waited to board the Cairo-bound plane, via Dubai, at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. It is certainly not an airport read, rather it is the kind of book the reader might have curled up on a cozy sofa in winter or by a pool in a mid-summer scorching afternoon.
 
Yet, a few chapters in, I found myself in the grip of India’s democratic experience since independence from Britain on 15 August 1947. India, after all, is the world’s largest democracy. A total of 8,251 candidates contested for 543 Lok Sabha (Indian Parliament) seats in the 2014 Indian general elections. Moreover, the electoral population in the 2014 election was 814.5 million, making it the largest ever election in the world.
 
And, for a developing nation such as India, election does not come cheap. Indeed, the Election Commission of India estimate that the election did cost the exchequer $577 million, excluding the expenses incurred for security and individual political parties.
 
Das writes like a mesmerizing storyteller. He is exceptionally gifted at expressing gratification. Nevertheless, the general contentment he exudes about India’s political development does not overlook the glitch.
 
“What was in common between Tahrir Square and Ramlila Maidan was that both represented a middle-class awakening, a symbol of hope for both India and Egypt,” Das extrapolates.
 
Mischievous and scintillating, Das excels at exploring the sharper edge that scythes through the snugness of India being a by and large a successful democracy. India Grows at Night is politically and emotionally sophisticated. One cannot help but fall in love with India.
 
Das’s writing is pithy and poignant. He transcends the mundane and conveys the texture of the complex Indian democracy and political process. The book is action-packed. And, he does it with finesse, and a simplicity that never borders on the excessively cerebral.
 
Author of the international bestseller India Unbound — a retrospective look into the transformation of India from birth of the author in 1942 to 1999 — and The Elephant Paradigm, a book of essays that tackles a wide range of subjects — Das’s India Grows at Night demonstrates a dense, lushly detailed study much like the tropical jungles of Kerala, or the verdant fields of Punjab where he was born. Indeed, he was born in Lyallpur, now Pakistani Punjab into a Hindu family that fled Pakistan to India after partition.
 
Das is a prolific columnist who regularly contributes analytic pieces for six Indian newspapers in English, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi languages including the Times of India. He also contributes occasional guest columns to  Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs.
 
In India Grows at Night, Das fleshes out poignant topics and prickly subjects concerning India’s political establishment without pussyfooting. He calls a spade a spade. Yet, he does so in an elegiac style that defies convention. He stirs up old secrets of India’s political process with panache.
 
Social media played a decisive role in India’s 2014 general elections. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or “Indian People’s Party” (BJP) is a charismatic and seasoned politician. And, Modi has catapulted the BJP into the corridors of power in New Delhi, elbowing Congress out. Indeed, Modi is mentioned admittedly very briefly in India Grows at Night.
 
Modi crops up when the author compares India and China. “China’s politicians have done a far better job of tapping into the aspirational spirits of its young. While Indians debate if growth is pro-poor, China talks about growing rich. It understands that performance is a function f expectations. Those with higher expectations get higher performance, China has stopped thinking of itself as a third world country and is challenging America today. In India, only a few politicians — Nitish Kumar, Sheila Dikshit and Narendra Modi among them — appeal to aspirers. They speak the language of governance, good roads and schools,” Das expounds.
 
This is a perspicacious pointer and an interesting observation given that Modi proved to be the winner in an Indian polity long dominated by Congress Party. But, back to Egypt. “This book had a remarkable birth in the Arab Spring where in a strange, unplanned way, I found myself standing bewildered on a podium in Tahrir Square. I was forced to improvise a three-minute lesson for Egypt from India’s democracy,” the author confesses.
 
“Before coming to Egypt I had been depressed by the persistent failures of governance in India and the unhappy contrast between private success and public failure. But I had not connected these till that instant in Tahrir Square to India’s fraying rule of law. Nor had I thought of the rule of law as lying at the heart of a successful liberal state,” Das concedes.
 
The author dwells at length on subjects long considered thorny in India such as socialism and inequality, crony capitalism and what he describes as the “dharma of capitalism”. Issues that a nascent democracy such as Egypt is also grappling with, except that “dharma” is a uniquely Indian concept that Egypt cannot absorb piecemeal primarily because of the country’s religious and cultural specificity. “When a reporter went around asking the critics of the market what should replace it, hardly anyone wanted Marx’s utopia, state ownership of the means of production — the predictable exceptions being the members of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). The conclusion seemed to be that capitalism was not perfect but there was nothing else to replace it. I felt that India had come a long way from 1991 an its mindset had changed,” the author makes a sagacious suggestion.
 
The author offers insights into the moral and political ambiguities of Indian democracy that lie beneath the veneer of continuity and stability. And, he does so in a witty and accessible style that belies the complexity of the topics under discussion. An entire chapter is devoted to India’s burgeoning middle class. “Bourgeois dignity: The Key to an Indian Puzzle” is an intriguing section of the chapter that unlocks the secrets of the Indian middle class.
 
“Dignity is a sociological fact while liberty is an economic and political concept. Middle-class Indians won some dignity when they won political independence in 1947; they gained some more when they attained economic liberty in 1991; but only now, twenty years later, have they begun to feel the full meaning of dignity after the economic rise of India,” Das explains somewhat philosophically.
 
India’s economic boom is an enjoyable tale from the viewpoint of the country’s large middle-class. And, Das pinpoints precisely why.
 
Congress is losing its grip on India’s political establishment, or so the results of the Indian general elections indicate. The country’s middle class is indignant about the Congress Party’s inability to control corruption and inflation. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who led the Congress campaign, was reportedly not even winning enough votes in the “safe” constituency where he stood for election. A political loss of this particular constituency would spell doom and disaster for the great grandson of India’s independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru and cast a long shadow of doubt on the political future of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.  The middle-class doesn’t trust the rather staid and somewhat outdated rhetoric of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which seems to have lost its lustre.
 
Perhaps, India’s middle-class want a fresh aggressively capitalist BJP and quite frankly in many sectors Congress has failed to deliver. The aspirations of the Indian middle-class in particular have become insatiable. Congress, still holds on tenaciously to the tenets of social justice, if not quite the socialism of yesteryear per se.
 
“A worldwide survey on the popular perception of capitalism revealed at the end of the last decade that 67 per cent of the Chinese strongly support their variety of capitalism. By comparison, in the United States only 43 per cent feel positive about it, not unexpectedly, in France, the support is the lowest at 37 per cent. The survey did not have Indian figures but I would not be surprised if India is at the top of the charts,” Das predicts.
 
India’s middle-class is in no mood to compromise, and Modi seems to be the very embodiment of the national consensus on capitalism. After all, Gujarat, Modi’s home state is a showpiece of capitalist development and has one of the country’s fastest growing economies.
 
I scanned the Indian papers to see what Das had to say about Modi’s political triumph. The author cited one key indicator of Modi’s ambitions and futuristic vision. “By covering Gujurat’s canals with solar panels, he is conserving water and has made Gujarat a model for solar power. And, as Das hit the nail of the head, by identifying a truism not often openly articulated in the media. “Modi is not likable — Rahul Gandhi is far more affable — but people today seek an effective, not a friendly leader. India’s dilemma is that Modi is the most likely candidate to provide corrupt fee governance and restore the economy to high growth, create masses of job and lift millions into the middle-class,” Das  Those who think corrupt free governance and prosperity are more important will vote for Modi,” Das predicted correctly.
 
“Those worry about communal harmony and domestic security, will not vote for him. It is an unhappy but unambiguous choice,” Das sums up. Modi has the political acumen and the drive to bolster India’s middle-class, or so he projects himself to the world’s largest electorate.
 
Modi understands the dynamics of modern Indian politics. “Today’s new middle class is a creature of the economic reform ad is connected to rapid growth in the private sector. Its heroes are business captains. Its success is celebrated in Bollywood movies and in more than 400 television channels in different Indian languages,” the author states categorically.
 
Given those circumstances, it would perhaps be logical to conclude that the middle-class determine a politicians’ fate and whether or not he or she advances his career to reach the apogee of statesmanship. This according to Das is not necessarily the case.
 
“Social media and technology are now strong instruments in the hands of the middle class as it mobilizes itself in its quest for accountability of the state. But, so far, it has behaved apathetically towards electoral politics,” the author elucidates.
 
In India Grows at Night Das touches on yet another sensitive concern of many Indians, namely the hegemony certain criminals have over local, regional and national politics.
 
A notorious feature of contemporary India is that the system enables “felons to enter politics” as Das so aptly puts it. “You would think that political parties would not want to be tainted by criminals. So why give them tickets? It is generally because they stand a greater chance of winning because of their money and muscle power. Criminals join politics in order to shield themselves from the law. They gain enormous influence as legislators, ensuring that cases against them are slowed down or dropped.”
 
It may come as a bit of a surprise to those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Indian society that a crisis in the rule of law is brewing in India. The underprivileged and disadvantaged classes are most susceptible to the unscrupulous criminal politicians of India. They are most vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of the duplicitous politicians.
 
And, this is a leads me to reflect on the upcoming presidential poll in Egypt. Are there lessons to be drawn from India? Yes, Das provides at least one. “History teaches that expectations drive progress. While policies and institutions help in forming expectations and contribute to progress, the real driver of development is the optimism and expectation of the people”. Whining, pessimism and nonconstructive criticism will get us nowhere.

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