John Keane | Banyan Democracy
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Banyan Democracy

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By John Keane, The Indian Express
Published: Wednesday 15 August 2077

‘Written for the special edition of one of India’ leading daily newspapers, the Indian Express, on the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Indian republic’

With its deep roots, many trunks and tall branches, India is the world’s most compound, turbulent and exciting democracy

Birthdays are fine moments for honest reflection, so let’s ask: what have been the prime achievements, and the sobering shortfalls, of Indian democracy during its first sixty years?

At a time when only a dozen democracies were left on the face of the earth, the coming of parliamentary democracy to India proved that dictatorship and totalitarianism were not politically necessary. Indian democracy shot other goats of prejudice. Awash in poverty of heart-breaking proportions, millions of Indian citizens rejected the view of their British masters that a country must first be deemed economically fit for democracy. They decided instead to become economically fit through democracy, so proving that the humble could inherit the earth, that the ‘law’ of the survival of the politically strongest and economically fittest was by no means absolute.

The change was of epochal importance. It extended the hand of democracy globally, to potentially billions of people who had one thing in common: they were not European. India defied the prevailing rule that democracy could take root only where there was a demos with a common culture. India showed that self-government was needed to protect a lively, loquacious society, one brimming with different languages and cultures, and therefore different definitions of the polity itself. The result was democracy with a real difference. The country invented and harnessed a wide range of new devices for publicly monitoring and checking the exercise of power. The unique federalisation of government, panchayat self-government, the empowerment of women, the rise of regional parties headed by iridescent figures like Mayawati, satyagraha and compulsory quotas for minority groups are among the best known. Others include participatory budgeting, ‘yellow card’ reports, railway courts, student elections, lok adalats, water consultation schemes and public interest litigation.

It is hard to find a political language for speaking about the long-term significance of these inventions. Certainly Indian politics bears little resemblance to either textbook accounts of representative democracy or to the Parliament-centred, Nehru-led Congress model of democracy, which after all supposed that citizens’ needs were best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. The 60-year-old Asian democracy is not just the world’s largest democracy — a convenient cliché — but also its most compound, turbulent and exciting prototype. Defined by various older and newer means of publicly contesting power and representing citizens’ interests, it resembles, in form, the giant, multi-trunk tree with interlinked aerial roots and branches that grows throughout the sub-continent: the famous banyan tree that is still honoured as a symbol of the vibrant unity that comes from complex diversity.

India is moving in the direction of banyan democracy. Especially since the defeat of the Emergency, democratic ideals and mechanisms have begun to extend sideways and downwards, throughout government and into the nooks and crannies of Indian society. With its deep roots, many trunks and tall branches, banyan democracy has global implications. One is that parties and politicians cannot be relied upon fully to address citizens’ needs — and that new channels are necessary for addressing citizens’ needs and grievances, their hopes and dreams. Another implication is that banyan democracy disproves the predictions of those who once believed that democracy required the privatisation of religious faith, or its outright extermination. Of decisive historical importance here is Nehru’s founding vision of secularism. This was not the secularism of the French or American constitutions, but something more innovative, in effect a vision of the equality of all religions, that implied the need for India’s citizens to reject the canker of communalism, to accept that Israeli-style partitioning is not their thing, and a two-nation policy, one for Muslims and one for Hindus, is an offence to the idea of democratic India.

The founding vision of secularism remains unrealised, of course, partly because the banyan democracy suffers certain endemic weaknesses. Despite a remarkably forward-looking constitution that manages to deliver good measures of legal justice, the scale of present-day corruption is dangerously high. The spread of market forces is not the only culprit, for (as in every democracy) the business of winning elections constantly tempts parties and governments to totter on the brink of criminality, to do cash-for-power deals behind the scenes. Within and outside government, bribes and kickbacks and other shady dealings have always been coated with sugary names, like ‘trust’ and ‘working together’, or (in daily life) asking for ‘chai’. But despite the fact that current wrongdoing nowhere near tops Chinese levels, the bitter truth is that corruption is harmful because it nurtures deep disaffection among India’s citizens. Things can certainly be done about corruption, but which Indian politicians or parties are today willing to debate publicly the great power of men like Amar Singh and firms like Reliance Industries? Why is so little done about unscrupulous ‘vote banking’ operated by crafty politicians and party officials? Or about organised moneymaking syndicates run by armed ‘self-defence committees’ and greedy dons (dabang) protected by the police or courts?

India’s reluctant contributions to the emerging geometry of global institutions are equally problematic. The country is arguably still chained to the legacy of Nehru’s legendary personal dominance of foreign policy. It is well known that during his time as prime minister he always retained the external affairs portfolio, which he treated as his private property. Democracy stopped at India’s borders. Within Congress, the lack of intra-party democracy reinforced the trend, so that when the time came for Nehru to leave centrestage, there emerged a long-term identity crisis of India in world affairs. Following the collapse of the Soviet empire during the years 1989-1991, it seemed that India’s political class and its citizens were confused about how the most successful Asian democracy should behave in a dangerously unipolar world dominated by the United States. Although old-fashioned talk of anti-imperialism no longer made sense, it was unclear whether the banyan democracy should still try to stick to its founding Five Principles (Panch Sheel) of world order. Tough questions still remain unanswered. Are these principles self-contradictory and strangely silent about democratic virtues like civil liberty? Can they therefore be misused, for instance to engage in nuclear brinkmanship, or (as in the present) to justify selling military helicopters to tin pot tyrannies like ‘sovereign’ Burma? Or does India have a responsibility to work for democracy everywhere, to intervene with hard or soft power to protect innocent people suffering rape, homelessness, genocidal murder? Or (the fickle and unrealistic flip side of the doctrine of sovereignty) should India strive to be a global superpower? Perhaps even by doing deals with the US and its fraught ‘war on terror’?

Equally vexed is the question of India’s burgeoning middle class, particularly its political tastes. Some commentators have praised them to the hilt. But during the past couple of decades, political efforts from within this class to paste India’s banyan democracy with turmeric — to use democracy to weaken democracy in the name of Hindu majority rule — have understandably sent shivers down many people’s spines, and not only within India. Middle classes are never ‘naturally’ democratic, which makes especially worrying the possible long-term growth of a dominant bloc of voters for whom living well simply means making money and piling up assets, including the peace of mind that comes from knowing that one’s children marry well up the social scale. There are presently millions of such voters. They bemoan how India now suffers from ‘too much democracy’. They sometimes gush with nationalist enthusiasm for politicians who promise to turn the country into a more confident, market-driven and ‘shining’ India — an India defined, using the latest ‘spin’ and ‘click of the mouse’ and ‘brand management’ tactics, as ‘essentially’ a Hindu nation.

The combined effect of these several weaknesses may prove fatal for the banyan democracy, though for the moment the odds are heavily against that outcome. A reminder of the remarkable internal strengths of banyan democracy came with the surprise poke in the eye given to the Vajpayee government, in the summer of 2004. The vote tossed out the first non-Congress government to have completed a full term. The rough ‘n tumble result saw a huge turnout of India’s poor. Their millions of votes not only guaranteed the formation of the country’s first-ever coalition government made up of a number of small regional parties in alliance with the Congress. Something far more important happened. The poor and their allies demonstrated that unity within a highly diverse country could be built by respecting differences, that despite everything it could live what B.R. Ambedkar once called ‘a life of contradictions’, if necessary by giving a democratic kiss of life to an ailing democracy. Through the ballot box, Indian citizens set an example for their offspring, and for the rest of the world. They proved that hubris could be defeated by dignity, using democratic means.

No doubt it will have to happen again, and again… Many happy returns, India!

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Read: Life After Political Death The Fate of Leaders After Leaving High Office

— Chapter appears in Dispersed Leadership in Democracy: Foundations, Opportunities, Realities, edited by John Kane, Haig Patapan and Paul ‘t Hart (Oxford University Press 2009) download pdf here