Unlikely success

Democracy in India is many things at once?multiple, heterogeneous and hybrid?and in this lies the secret of its triumph

Battles Half Won: India?s Improbable Democracy

Ashutosh Varshney


Rs 599

Pp 432

Ashutosh Varshney is no stranger to political science, which is my ?disciplinary home? as well. Ensconced in the stupendous box-office success of his magnum opus, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, world-class India specialist Varshney is back with such force and ferocity of his eclectic genius and highly ?counter-theoretical way? that Improbable Democracy will haunt you forever. At first glance, I must confess, the cover page of Battles Half Won: India?s Improbable Democracy is so prosaic and predictable that it induces sleep in daylight. But let me awaken you from the Freudian parapraxis, and also warn?you will be soon struck by ?strange nocturnal happenings? in the starched, cotton-dream-like pages in the book. As you rummage through the magisterial introduction in the first chapter on triumphs and travails of India?s democracy in 60-odd years, you won?t wonder why he enjoys the status of ?rock star? in the comity of experts on India studies.

In 10 exquisitely written essays by Varshney over two decades of his illustrious professional career, the study of politics in India begins to resemble ?cinematic metafiction?. Sauteed with insights of top-of-the-shelf scholars in political science, sociology and economics, his freshly-minted prose in the refurbished essays published earlier in top academic journals reminds one of pentimento in painting, where images painted over by the artist become starkly translucent, revealing an earlier design trapped under the layers of the present work. Whatever it is, Varshney, in his masterly Tocquevillian tone, has reaffirmed that India that is Bharat is perpetually being reconstituted by politics alone. And Indians, the multi-ethnic, multilingual, multitudes with diverse orientations against the so-called ?order of nature? in life, love and politics, are creatures of democracy!

India is, indeed, ?hyper mobilised?, much of it by political parties. Against the growing cynicism of the electronic media towards the so-called ?anarchic? politics of AAP, Varshney oracles that ?hyper-mobilization might make Indian democracy very noisy, even chaotic, but in many ways, it also keeps democracy going?.

Like a trained scuba diver (he was mentored by Myron Weiner at MIT), he leaps into a ozone-less terrain, sinks deeper and deeper into what Amartya Sen calls ?uncertain glory? in search of why Selig Harrison?s doomsday predictions about the imminent collapse of democracy in India in the 1960s failed, or how federalism in India is a product more of a costly caesarean delivery of ?state-nation? than Benedict Anderson?s ?imagined nationalism? at throwaway prices. He is nearly breathless, but snoops around the sandy, algae-ridden bottom of the sea in search of answers to how the social revolution in the south gradually led to ?democratic upsurge? in the north; how the 1991 neo-liberal economic reforms failed to create conditions for inclusive development; why and how political equality does not necessarily lead to economic equality, or how the political empowerment of the Dalit-Bahujan has not led to their economic emancipation in India.

Using insights from historical experiences of democracy in the comparative context and focusing on the ?origins, the longevity, and the unfinished quests of Indian democracy?, Varshney presents the ?exceptionalism? of India?s democracy as a counter-intuitive consequence of politics. In a joie de vivre deconstruction of the ?improbability? of democracy in a hierarchical, caste-ridden poor society, he avers that once democracy enters into the cerebral cortex of imagination, inserts itself into the arteries and begins resonating in the ?habits of hearts? of poor and rich alike, it becomes permanent, though not unblemished. It is this ?historical novelty?, described variously as a ?fascinating mix?, ?leap of faith?, ?nothing short of a miracle? and ?an adventure?, that refuses to define the market in purely economic and technical terms. That is why ?economic reforms resonate well in India?s elite politics but not in mass politics?, Varshney asserts. So we are not surprised that ?India has still not witnessed a national-level mass politician, who can make a political claim on behalf of markets?. In other words, the great ?poverty debate?, a matter of continuing pain and agony in the underbelly of Indian economy, is actually a political question, an unfinished project as a consequence of mass politics in a poor democracy!

The unlikely success of democracy is narrated by Varshney like a whodunit thriller that keeps you engaged and also in suspense if you continue to worry about the eurocentric Lipset-Prezeworski thesis about the ?strong association between affluence and stable democracy?. Rejecting Barrington Moore?s long held prophesy of ?no bourgeoisie, no democracy? in light of evidence from India, Varshney offers his law-like formulation that ?so long as contestation and participation are available, democracy is a continuous variable (expressed as ?more or less?), not a dichotomous variable (expressed as ?yes or no?)?. And on this criterion, ?India would qualify as a great success?, Varshney announces!

We all know that Varshney is no chronicler of ?passive revolution? of subaltern classes or insurgent tribals in violent Maoist movements. He is also not a biographer of avant-garde Foucauldian ?bio-politics? of chaiwala, rikshawwala, panwala, raddiwala, construction workers, slum dwellers, pavement dwellers, etc. Yet, he is categorical about the democratic impulses of Dalit-Bahujan and also aware that majority of the poor live in strange spaces of unlikely visceral intimacy and catheretic everyday violence of hunger and starvation. No mutants, superheroes or aliens will save us from the increasing geographies of poverty, hunger, corruption, lack of intra-party democracy and growing furies of intolerance of dissenting opinion, Varshney in his inimitable style, warns us about the disturbing future.

When you are done with the book, you are left with a sense of wonder and awe by Varshney?s allegorical envocation of democracy in India as ?many things at once??multiple, heterogeneous and hybrid; in this lies the secret of winning those battles not yet won.

In the end, I have a few quibbles with him. His faith in the rational choice ?politics of moderation? conveniently ignores insidious consequences of the politics of Hinduvta. And his pro-growth religiosity leads him to the slippery slope of embracing the market without the redistributive politics of poor in the ?battle for deeper democracy?. As it is widely acknowledged that democracy facilitates class compromises, the silence on the role of classes in the survival and consolidation of democracy is intriguing. Also, it is counter-intuitive that he has not focused his intellectual energies on studying parliament, judiciary and administration?the bricks and mortars of Madisonian architectures of democratic politics.

For some strange disciplinary reason, experts on India have not paid sufficient attention to studying leadership, institutions of governance and legislatures or law-makers, including those who spray pepper in the eyes of people or perform quotidian striptease for entertaining carnal instincts of democracy! So, after having finished reviewing the book, I took, rather reluctantly, an ?improbable? late evening walk on the seashore. Coconut trees shingled and snoozed in the afterglow of sunset, but the rising ?crescent moon? with poked marks, was ever resplendent. It is this resplendence of democracy, with its imperfections, that Ashutosh Varshney has etched into our memory.

Ashwani Kumar is the author of Community Warriors; professor and chairperson at Center of Public Policy, Habitat & Human

Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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First published on: 23-02-2014 at 05:03 IST