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State Capital, Democracy and Justice: Mapping Politics in India

The Oxford Companion to Politics in India edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xxvi+603, Rs 3,500 (hb).

State Capital, Democracy and Justice: Mapping Politics in India

Sanjeeb Mukherjee

he publication of The Oxford Companion to Politics in India marks the coming of age of political science in India. An array of scholars all over the globe has addressed some of the central issues of Indian politics in this magisterial tome. It is truly a remarkable collection and would change the way Indian politics is taught in our colleges and universities. This book is divided into eight parts, consisting of 38 chapters. It covers vast ground, from institutions, social cleavages, social movements, ideological contestations, political processes, policies, methodologies to India’s relation with the world. Politics and democracy are almost synonymous in India and hence the editors call democracy the “unwritten subtext” of this volume. Of course, a separate section on democracy and justice could have addressed both the crisis of our polity as well as the public philosophies for the future. No review of any reasonable length can do justice to all the papers, so I have organised this review around three central themes, which, I believe can be both an analytical device for understanding our politics as well as a normative criterion for evaluating our historical experience. This thematic triptych consists of capitalism and the nation state, democracy and the sociopolitical process and finally the question of justice. Of course, they overlap and often become as messy as our politics; it is not possible to dissect our body politic the way we dissected frogs in our biology class in school.

Capitalism and the Nation State

Part I deals with the institutional setting of politics in India. It opens with an article on the Indian state by Partha Chatterjee. It begins by asking a pregnant question, “how much of the structure of the Indian state after Independence was inherited from late colonial times?” If we could pursue this

review article

The Oxford Companion to Politics in India

edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xxvi+603, Rs 3,500 (hb).

question seriously, which Chatterjee unfortunately does not, many a feature of our polity and economy might make better sense. But before we explore this question let us look at Chatterjee’s thesis on the state. The formation of the developmental state in the Nehru years through planning and welfare legitimised the state after independence. In the absence of bourgeois hegemony, the capitalists had to share power with other dominant classes making our capitalist transition a passive revolution and our liberal democracy different from the west.

Chatterjee’s much debated central argument is that since liberalisation and globalisation the bourgeoisie has been able to establish its hegemony over the urban middle classes or civil society. But there is a huge quasi-legal domain outside civil society and is outside the hegemony of capital, which he christens as political society. This political society is not governed within the framework of constitutionally defined rights and laws but through unstable contextual political arrangements. Thus they “are not regarded by the state as proper citizens possessing rights” and belonging to civil society (p 9). They are merely the targets of particular government policies and entitlements but not rights. Rapid capitalist development in India is accompanied by large-scale dispossession and displacement of peasants and tribals. But this primitive accumulation of capital under conditions of democracy is only possible if its effects are r eversed by government’s welfare policies.

The major problem with Chatterjee’s idea of political society is that it is a view from the state and one which does not raise the question of justice in politics. Let me give two examples of large-scale illegalities engaged by the people in Bengal, first, the millions of refugees who forcibly occupied public land and fought a longdrawn battle demanding ownership rights, which was eventually conceded in the late 1980s. It was a battle conducted in the language of justice and rights; rights not in the strictly legal sense, but rights flowing from an idea of justice, much like natural rights. Likewise, sharecroppers won legal rights after a battle of well over 30 years or even more. Interestingly, the Nagarik Mancha, an organisation in Bengal fighting for people inhabiting the space of political society makes a central demand that the state should follow its own laws. It is the state in collusion with corporate capitalism, which is violating its own laws and denying the poor their legitimate rights and dues. And increasingly the state has to defend its own lawlessness by force and violence, including illegal violence by its mafias and quasi-legal organisations like Salwa Judum or special police officers. Unless the question of justice is addressed we would be bogged down in narrow state-centric juridical descriptions.

‘Imperial State’

This brings us to Chatterjee’s opening question and, I would venture, the argument that the Indian state not only inherited much of its structure from colonialism but, in fact could be called an imperial state, which, in alliance with capital and the Indian middle classes or, to be more precise, the English-speaking elite, has colonised the rest of the country, even engaged in primitive capital accumulation. Lutyen’s Delhi and its roads renamed after Mughal and other sundry emperors and the appropriation of Mughal monuments for legitimising the new state all point to its imperial

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desires. Thus, none of the regions or nationalities has been able to flourish, except their elites. Increasingly, this imperial state is carving out enclaves for itself and is catching up with a chain of such enclaves all over the globe, all in the name of globalisation. There is, of course, a major difference with the former colonial state; it legitimises itself under both, conditions of and through democracy. Today no other principle of rule other than popular consent is acceptable. The Indian state unlike most third world states has been able to build its political hegemony and thus does not rule by pure domination. I wish to make a distinction between political hegemony and the Gramscian idea of moral and cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie. This strategy of political hegemony was forged during the national struggle and perfected after independence. This political hegemony enabled the elites to establish a democracy with universal adult franchise even before the people demanded it. This preemptive democracy has enabled the state to legitimise itself through the trust and consent of the people. Co-opting emerging elites and promising to deliver justice and protect the people further secure this consent. This is not to deny the role of violence when the people refuse consent. This makes our democracy not a rule by the people, but an elite rule in the name of the people and with their consent. In the absence of a public philosophy of justice, even popular movements against capitalism and elite rule have not been able to offer an alternative imaginary of emancipatory politics in India. Chatterjee rightly points to the virtual consensus among all parties, from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Congress to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) about the private investment driven development model. This makes political philosophy so central to any study of politics in India, which is a major lacuna of this volume.

I engaged in this rather extended discussion of Partha Chatterjee’s paper because of the centrality of the nation state and capitalism, engaged in primitive accumulation under conditions of democracy without justice, as the prism through which we can best make sense of politics in India. In its bid to ensure rapid economic growth, the state is becoming increasingly oppressive and exploitative, which is seriously putting democracy under severe strain, especially at the seams.

Though there is an entire section devoted to questions of political economy, none of those essays address the structural relationship between the polity and capitalism, which is now emerging as a major force and which is so central in both shaping our polity and providing a template. Nor do they discuss the increasingly fierce contest between a rising capitalism and its growth story and the people over land, including urban space, and natural resources. This is the story of the primitive accumulation of capital under conditions of democracy. The crisis of agriculture and the massive displacement of people are also causing unprecedented urbanisation all of which has remained unaddressed. In this section, there are essays by Devesh Kapur on the political economy of the state, Rahul Mukherjee on the political economy of reforms, and Aseema Sinha on the relationship between business and politics.

Uday Mehta’s original essay on constitutionalism opens up a field little explored in the study of Indian politics. He begins by discussing the constitutional conundrums at its founding moments, reminiscent of the work of Derrida and Hannah Arendt. He points to the centrality of power and politics in the philosophy of the Constitution, making Hobbes the “unacknowedged mentor of the Indian Constitution” (p 19). Mehta argues that the constitutional moment was the moment of revolution. He also points to the fact that 75% of our Constitution was borrowed from the colonial act of 1935. The Constitution had to legitimise this inherited state and thus its central anxiety was to speak for the n ation, keep the country united and the state intact. To ensure this project the state had to promise social change and development and even justice. It was a future-oriented project – this state had to legitimise itself by creating an appropriate nation for itself and it did so through the consent of the people. During the national movement the nation was forged, but it was a nation very different from the one we are living with now. Nationalism drew its cultural legitimacy from the idea of an Indian civilisation and unfolded itself on two levels – the pan-Indian nation led by bilingual and bicultural elites organically tied to the second level of regions defined by linguistic-cultural nationalism.

The Indian state and capitalism needed a nation and a new kind of nationalism to legitimise its project. This capitalism could not transform the entire economy or society, nor did it have colonies to extract its original resources of accumulation. Hence it drew its resources from within the country by dispossessing and displa cing millions of people. The state legitimised








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its claim to own all natural resources by denying the people of their traditional rights over common or community property over land, rivers or forests. Whatever was not private property became state property by definition. The anxiety of empire gripped such a state and thus its focus on national unity and integrity and the security of the state. In the process a new pan-Indian nation emerged primarily through English medium schools, which created a new English-speaking class and now with the coming of age of the Indian English novel, this nation has arrived to rule. It is an unintended nation living in an enclave but its doors are open and English schooling and higher education ensure the right of passage. This nationalism is frivolous and dangerous at the same time; its frivolousness identifies nationalism with cricket and wars with Pakistan, either on the pitch or elsewhere. Its dangerousness lies in its aspirations to be a superpower, wield the bomb and h omogenise the people.

This brings me to Sudipta Kaviraj’s essay on nationalism, where he argues for the case of telling the story of Indian nationalism in “exclusive Indian terms” (p 319). He makes an interpretive historical survey of the bases and the growth of nationalism in India. He points to the continuing relevance of the deep structure of Indian history marked by the interaction between the cosmopolitan cultures of Sanskrit and Persian and the vernaculars creating a common culture, which was federal in nature. This made way for an overlapping regional and pan-Indian nationalism. It created a complex national identity not in competition with other identities, but it managed to subsume them (p 329). Kaviraj rightly concludes by the observation that the pan-Indian state and capitalism and the social classes – largely professionals – associated with them support the idea of a strong national state as a precondition for further economic growth. The state will gather greater legitimacy, according to Kaviraj, if it is able to equitably distribute the gains of this economic resurgence. I find this reading to miss out on the long historical conflict between the people and the regions and the central authorities of caste, class and empire, which is still playing out in large parts of India. It is also a conflict on the different claimants to the imperial state, including the radical clai mants like the CPI(ML), whose battle cry is Lal Qille pe lal nishan mang rahi hai Hindustan. Important essays by Sunil Khilnani on “politics and national identity” and Sanjib Baruah on “regionalism and secessionism” further explore these themes. Two essays written by Bishnu Mohapatra and Christophe Jaffrelot have addressed the question of religion and nationalism.

Democracy and the Political Process

Democracy for long has been seen as a puzzle and paradox to most students of Indian politics. Given the fact that it survives and helps legitimise the state in India without ensuring justice or any real popular power makes it the most interesting aspect of our politics. Unfortunately, this volume has no separate section on democracy, but as the editors say it is the immanent theme of the book. The essays on the Election Commission by Alistair McMillan and on Parliament by Vernon Hewitt and Shirin Rai address the institutional aspects of democracy. Subrata Mitra and Malte Pehl discuss the importance of federalism. Yogendra Yadav’s essay on representation is the key paper on democracy in India. He points to a central paradox of democracy as the mismatch between the institutions of democracy and popular power and peoples’ needs and their democratic aspirations (p 346f). Thus our democracy fails to address the question of justice but the rulers manage to retain the consent of the people and thus succeed in legitimising the state. Even when parties of backward classes and castes come to power the people are neither empowered nor is justice established. The best examples of this failure are the long spells of communist rule in Bengal or the Laloo Yadav regime based on the promise of social justice. Yet there was huge popular participation in the democratic process. This, according to Yogendra Yadav, results in two contrary narratives about our democracy: the story of the decline and erosion of democracy and the other story of the deepening of Indian democracy (p 348). Yadav seeks to make sense of this paradox. Instead of viewing Indian democracy as a weaker model of the western prototype he attempts an explanation, which addresses the specificity of our historical experience.

How did democratic elections, which is a western idea, become a passion in India? In other words, without the cultural and social background conditions of modernity how did India successfully operate a democracy? Elections, Yogendra argues, act as a hinge bringing together the two worlds successfully – the liberal democratic order and the traditional social form of castes and communities and giving birth to a phenomenon he describes as Indian modern (p 355). Elections have dislodged entrenched elites and lower classes and castes have assumed political power, but all that has not brought about “effective policy options” or desirable consequences (p 358). This, he argues, calls for “political reforms”. His analysis and prescription would have acquired far greater strength if he had used one idea, which is absent. That is idea of justice, in a serious and substantive sense. The idea of justice is not only absent in our public discourse, even this English word has no clear equivalent in most Indo-Aryan languages. Though the Urdu word insaaf exists, it is hardly used, save in Hindi films. I will discuss the question of justice in the next section.

Caste is the most used and abused category in our discussions of democracy and modernity. Surinder Jodhka in his essay on “caste and politics” addresses the modernist dilemma about caste and democracy. Caste, according to Nehruvian modernisers, has to be abolished but actually thrives under Indian democracy. By the 1960s, castes, caste alliances and caste associations came to be recognised for their ability to adapt to democracy. In the process, major changes came about in the caste system and traditional forms of caste domination declined dramatically. The politics of reservations played a crucial role in the rise of backward and oppressed castes. Jodhka approvingly quotes Sudipta Kaviraj is describing this change as the creation of a “democracy of castes in place of a hierarchy” (p 164).

Though I largely agree with Jodhka’s account of the ability of caste to adapt and change itself under conditions of democracy, I would argue that this contest among castes and egalitarian movements against brahmanical orthodoxy is quite old. From Buddha to the Bhakti movement and the

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Gandhian intervention the egalitarian movement is continuing under formal democracy after 1947. The brahmanical hegemony and claims to hierarchy has always been challenged and never has this challenge led to major civil wars or revolutions in our history. This only shows the presence of a space in Indian society for social change and contestations, which is what democracy offers. I am not suggesting that there was a formal democracy in India from ancient times, but a quasi-democratic ethos existed among castes where they could compete with each other and claim equality. At least in the large middle space in Indian society, there was considerable egalitarianism among the intermediate jatis. The extremities of Indian society were excluded from this egalitarian spirit

– the brahmins and the untouchables.

Second, within castes there were panchayats, which often worked following the deliberative and representative principle. Not that they were not oppressive or patriarchal as we find the khap panchayats today, but so were the Greek polis in many cases. Yet as germs of democracy the polis is universally recognised. Likewise, we must recognise the panchayats as the germs of Indian democracy, which have continued in history. This gives our castes the strength to adapt so well to modern democracy. A ctually the most important change that has come about within castes under modern democracy is the emergence of the individual and his claims to equal rights and dignity, but unfortunately our social theorists have largely ignored this. All this has given birth to a civil society within castes. John Harriss has discussed the relation between class and politics.

Finally, this brings me to a discussion of how and why under democracy the social order based on upper class and caste domination and capitalism continues. For long it was believed that either the elite would dump democracy or the people would end elite domination. Or how does democracy without justice thrive in India? Political parties and leadership played a crucial role in maintaining this democracy with popular consent without any effective share of power and benefits. Arun Swamy in a well-researched essay on political mobilisation offers an interesting model of the major strategies of mobilisation in India. Political parties and leaders play the most important part in building alliances and drawing people into politics. Unfortunately, this strategic aspect of parties and leaders has not been sufficiently studied in post-independent India. Winning mass support to get past the post is the central goal of all elites or those wishing to counter them and acquire power. Swamy identifies two strategies of alliance building in modern Indian political history – first, the anti-hegemonic alliance, which unites intermediate powers against the hegemonic power and second, the sandwich alliance, which unites the extremes of a power hierarchy against those in the middle (p 269). The Congress maintained its hegemony by resorting to sandwich tactics and the opposition took to building antihegemonic alliances. By the mid-1960s the opposition strategy started giving electoral dividends and Indira Gandhi’s reassertion in 1971, on the garibi hatao slogan, was a classic case of a sandwich alliance. After 1977, the middle peasants and backward classes increasingly came to wield considerable power. What these neat models of mobilisation miss out is the strategy of Indian elites, both for winning elections as well as to legitimise the state, of making pre-emptive moves in building democracy and initiating welfare measures and of co-opting emerging elites from all classes into positions of power and making promises for the future. When these strategies fail, the state and elites have used selective and localised violence to quell any serious opposition. The most important pre-emptive move was the introduction of universal suffrage and later, lowering the voting age, reserving seats for women and institutionalising a democratic local government.

Anirudh Krishna and James Manor a ddress the institutions and politics of l ocal governments. None of these moves were a response to a popular movement; in fact they not only stalled the possibility of such movements, but also won the trust and loyalty of the people. The principal strategy of co-option has been recognised by scholars in the nature of the Congress as an accommodative party, which co-opted intermediate level forces and leaders. Zoya Hasan and E Sridharan have written two essays on the party system, where they address some of these issues. Co-option was institutionalised through the policy of quotas and reservations for different social groups, which largely benefited the elites among them, but won the trust of the entire community. This was the central strategy of building the political hegemony of the elites, which required the consent of the people and made it possible for the elites to rule in the name of the people. The inability to do so results in the breakdown of democracy in much of the third world.

The Question of Justice

Though, in India, injustice is the order of the day it has neither ushered in disorder or revolution. There are two major reasons for this strange phenomenon, first, the elite’s ability to establish its political hegemony through democracy and second, the absence of any serious discourse on justice, particularly by academics, but also by activists. In fact, unless serious thinking and concern, including activism comes together, no society can produce a discourse on justice. Not that thinking or struggles for justice is absent, but they are yet to occupy the centre stage of our politics. The organisation and contents of this volume speak of our concerns. The only exception is the brilliant and densely argued essay on social justice by Gopal Guru. He recognises this elementary fact when he distinguishes between the state-sponsored idea of justice and the popular struggle-based idea. In India the state has set the agenda for justice. Gopal also distinguishes between the orthodox and the heterodox traditions in our ideas of justice. The latter made a radical critique of the caste system and brahmanism, whereas the orthodox

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tradition sought reforms within the caste order and hence existed “as a governing or disciplining, rather than enabling, principle” (p 362).

Gopal Guru suggests that the heterodox or radical idea of justice through popular agency and struggles is a modern idea and “was made available only with the onset of colonial modernity” (p 364). I think Gopal undermines the importance of the Buddha-Bhakti and other subaltern traditions of justice and utopias when he argues that in pre-modern India all castes were governed by the brahmanical ideology (p 363). Denying agency, autonomy and consciousness to the subaltern classes is almost a denial of both, faith in human beings as well as the little recovery of suppressed knowledge and discourses made by scholars. To ascribe only negative consciousness to the peasantry or tribals, as Ranajit Guha so famously did is a denial of even the formal and extant discourses of the Buddha-Bhakti traditions, both of which inspired two of the greatest advocates of justice in modern times – Gandhi and Ambedkar. The brahmanical hegemonic story of India has nearly obliterated the alternative story immortalised in one of the greatest work of Indian art, made on the eve of independence – Benode Bihari’s mural in Santiniketan on Bhakti saints and subalterns.

But the important question Gopal raises is how the struggle or contest idea of justice was replaced by the state’s assumption of the agenda of justice. It reduces justices to governmentality, ultimately co-opting emerging elites from the oppressed classes and getting popular consent and thus legitimising the state. The state’s idea of justice is based on making some permanent exceptions to the formal right to equality by ensuring reservations or quotas for the oppressed. Such policies, instead of ensuring justice based on equal rights, in this case the right to equal opportunity, end up in legitimising the social and political order. Though I would agree with Gopal about the severe limits of the statesponsored idea of justice and an intellectual failure to voice an alternative idea of justice, I wish to draw his attention to the philosophy of justice as well as a utopia in the Directive Principles of our Constitution, again a chapter of the Constitution, which has been aptly forgotten. Justice depends on both ideas and utopias; unfortunately, we are short of both. Gopal’s discussion of justice does not address the question of capitalism, the central issue raised by the Marxist conception of justice. Neither does the book have any discussion of left movements, rebellions and national uprisings in India. If justice is not highlighted, rebellions would not make any sense.

I would wish to read some of the major essays on social movements and public policy for the poor as essays on justice. Amita Baviskar, Sudha Pai, Anupama Roy and Amrita Basu have written on social movements, farmers’ and women’s movements respectively. One would have imagined that justice would be their central theme, but a perusal of these essays shows the eloquent absence of concerns for justice, except in a piecemeal way, in any serious sense. Rob Jenkins’ essay on NGOs, contrary to popular middle class perceptions, also shows that they too do not have much to offer. Atul Kohli, at best, expresses the public discourses on justice in terms of some limited social democratic goals, brought out by a comparative study of Indian states.

Art and Science of Politics

The concluding section of this volume has two essays on the ways of looking at Indian politics, one on the study of data by Steven Wilkinson and the other by Susanne and Lloyd Rudolf. The Rudolfs have done a great job by offering us an intellectual history of the concepts and narratives of I ndian politics. Under colonialism the s upremacy of western knowledge of politics over Indian perspectives was institutionally sealed through the setting up of universities in the three centres of colonial rule – Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. What the Rudolfs miss out is the nationalist response to western education; for example, in Bengal, during the Swadeshi movement, the setting up of educational institutions was a major agenda. As a result, three of the major universities of Bengal, Calcutta, Jadavpur and Visva Bharati, apart from the many nationalist institutions, were set up by nationalist initiative and funds. Before that Calcutta University, though set up by the British, was merely an examining body – it did not have any teachers or students. A serious attempt was made in these institutions to build an Indian perspective on knowledge, what the philosopher K C Bhattacharyya called, “swaraj in ideas”. Though political science was not yet a separate department, the nationalist perspective influenced studies in this discipline. I would argue that, it was only after independence under Nehru’s tutelage that development through modern science and technology became the key project of the Indian state. For this project to succeed, neither the liberal nor the nationalist universities had any need. Thus Nehru focused on building “world-class” institutes of science and technology, public administration and management, atomic energy, design, etc. His only interest in social sciences was in economics for they would provide key inputs for planning this whole enterprise; thus his patronage of the Delhi School of Economics or the Indian Statistical Institute. The social sciences, including politics, merely imitated this new western scientism and became divorced from philosophy and Indian history and concern for the people or justice. As a result, contrary to Partha Chatterjee’s formulation, our academic discourse pursued by the English-speaking elite became totally derivative; our nationalist discourse was far more autonomous. The Rudolfs argue that only in the 1980s, with the emergence of postcolonial and subaltern studies, did a new Indian perspective begin to emerge.

The developmental agenda of the new state and the English-speaking elite turned our social sciences, including politics into a professional enterprise. Philosophy and the humanities in general was ignored in our universities, for example, JNU – the most important university set up after independence – does not have fullfledged departments of philosophy or h umanities. The professionalisation of our intellectual life has divorced us from our concerns for the people and justice. There are, of course, exceptions and two of the most brilliant are (the later) Rajni Kothari and Ranajit Guha’s magnum opus on p easant rebellions.

Sanjeeb Mukherjee ( is with the department of political science, University of Calcutta, Kolkata.

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