Reading Foucault & thinking college activism

This has been in the making for several years now – trying to identify the causal chain from ideas to action, especially since the first reading of Foucault. The ongoing trouble in colleges and universities of Delhi presents a case to reflect upon this causal chain.

There comes a phase in student life when encounters with different views and ideologies happens. These emerge not in the classroom but come in via campus gates, campus canteens, chai shops and similar such student watering holes. These are at times tensions in the real world, varieties of conflicts of interests and at times plain matters of ideological positions. All of these get overwhelming for a person who is a few years out of school and as a youngster. I remember my first experience of a political rally in a small town in Tamil Nadu. Then there were these trade union rallies (AITUC, INTUC and Mazdoor unions) that I got hooked on to. They were amazing sights and assemblies of people. As a youth this encounter – of the unfolding of ideas as action in real life, shapes one to either question what is happening and have an opinion, or walk away with an indifference altogether. These plain experiences seem to have a bearing on that student’s worldview in later years when he joins the workforce (like, sympathies to the causes of marginalized people and organized resistance as a recourse).

In this process, I find that readings can help a great deal in shaping early views which might enable a student to make, perhaps, a slightly better sense of the encounters that he is likely to have. Political events – rallies, meetings, protests, clashes etc, are referred to as “encounters” because in a student’s life in India these typically have no precedence. Often, the student has seen an action but has not known the idea that inform that action. Towards this, I recall my experience reading thinkers like Foucault and how the use of “power” began pervading my arguments and consequent formation of opinion.

August, 2012 is when I first encountered his article in – Governmentality, in Colin Gordon (ed), (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Since then, the frequency with which Foucault’s writings have ambushed me, became alarmingly high. He died in Paris in the year I was born. That somehow felt like Foucault’s experiences that inform his ideas might be a bit reachable in their nature. However, it was difficult to discern the plane at which his thought-process worked. I wasn’t quite getting a hang of the range of his engagement. Over time, I began sampling excerpts from various themes that he engaged with. The man looked fascinating to begin with and having read a bit more of him I can say that his writings can serve as an armory which can effectively enable thinkers and actors alike for the battle of ideas that rages in our contemporary society. Take for instance, the university and college campus clashes happening in India this week – Ramjas, JNU and the fight for turf. As an unconditioned student in these or any other educational institution, how does one navigate the variety of opinions that seem to be leading up to these clashes? This question seems important now because having attended two universities (which are strikingly different in their institutional values and student body) I see that the ways and means that shape student opinion in these campuses do not have a space for a student’s own reasoned choice which builds organically over time. A student today is drawn by factions and he either tunes in with them or tunes out and stays home, out of “politics” as some label it.

A reading of ideas and examination of arguments made by either sides during historic events can, in a subtle and slow manner, shape (not indoctrinate) opinion-making process in students. Back in school where I was teaching a group of 16 year old students, I tried this out. After a series of classes in “argument and reason” which were driven with thinkers like W E B Dubois, Gandhi and Robespierre (of French Revolution) we examined how these men stood for causes and defended their reasons. These were a random set of thinkers chosen only because the curriculum until then had a mention of them. Over the course of following months, I noticed the students using the methods of reasoning of these men in some of the discussions in classroom and outside. This was a useful insight.

At the same time, in those teaching years, I was also attending a full-time masters at a university where I’d be on the other side – as a student. In that classroom however, the difference was stark. The student discussions invariably escalated into arguments which were fueled with emotions than substantive reason. I tried probing into some of my classmates’ education and work trajectories. And hardly a few reported having had any systematic or coherent engagement with ideas, thinkers or seminal works. Without an intention to offend, this appeared to be an impoverished education. This lack of tradition of reading and informed debates at intermediate and university level of education, appears to be a contributing factor to the rather ugly clashes in Ramjas college and universities like JNU. One might allege that this is an oversimplified take on the events. I’d like to argue that it is not when viewed systemically. The students’ own lack of engagement (due to a variety of reasons) has amounted to this violent and unproductive environment.

I began with Foucault. So let me recall an interview that Foucault gave to Christian Delacampagne in 1980 – published as The Masked Philosopher in a volume of his collected writings. This relates to the case I am making for role of knowledge by the way of reading.

CD : Let’s risk a few concrete propositions. If everything is going badly, where do we make a start?

MF: But everything isn’t going badly. In any case, I believe we shouldn’t confuse useful criticism of things with repetitive jeremiads against people. As for concrete propositions, they can’t just make an appearance like gadgets, unless certain general principals are accepted first. And the first of such general principles should be that the right to knowledge (droit au savoir) must not be reserved to a particular age group or to certain categories of people, but that one must be able to exercise it constantly and in many different ways.

Responding to the above, CD asks the following question, which reveals Foucault’s clarity of thought as well as seems instructive to the case for reading that I am making .

CD: Isn’t this desire for knowledge (envie de savoir) somewhat ambiguous? What, in fact, are people to do with all that knowledge that they are going to acquire? What use will it be to them?

MF: One of the main functions of teaching was the training of the individual should be accompanied by his being situated in the society. We should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on the condition that teaching is a possibility always being offered.

So, does that mean we are envisioning a society of scholars? Foucault’s reply again seems useful to our case.

CD: Are you in fact for a society of scholars (societe savante)?

MF: I’m saying that people must be constant able to plug into culture and in as many ways as possible. There ought not to be, on the one hand, this education to which one is subjected to and, on the other, this information one is fed.

Shiv Vishvanathan in a recent piece on the moral economy of a university speaks of the problem from a different end – that of the university. He reasons that the university’s “role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat.” In a partial sense, this piece also speaks to the gap in reading and engagement with ideas and thinkers that I have spoken of above.

Bottom-line: A part of the fault lies in the disharmony between information (which emerges in the real world) and education (which is situated in a classroom) that the students in India have been living through. This is amounting to phenomenal amount of ignorance and naive behaviour among the student body.

When bad guys get elected


Kolkata, 2008

Here is a quick take on the electoral process prompted by a twitter conversation with a friend. This first appeared on Lokniti blog.

This polemical piece is a consequence of a twitter conversation with another MPP grad (@suhasd1988) on an article in NYT by Maskin and Sen that he shared. The authors explain how a majority rule based electoral process might have stopped Trump, who is the leading presidential candidate in the upcoming election in the US and has won the primaries in 23 states.  How Majority Rule Might Have Stopped Donald Trump ). The authors seem to suggest that on a one-on-one contest Trump would have been defeated in 17 states. Sure! But it is a conjecture as best as anyone else’s because it just didn’t happen. Giving it to the authors, they do say that it “might have stopped” Donald Trump.

The alleged outcome must necessarily happen for this thesis to hold any water. Launching off from this point, the authors write –

In the early contests, Mr. Trump attracted less than 50 percent of the vote (in Arkansas he got only 33 percent); a majority of voters rejected him. But he faced more than one opponent every time, so that the non-Trump vote was split. That implies he could well have been defeated in most (given his extreme views on many subjects) had the opposition coalesced around one of his leading rivals.

True! Anyone with a keen eye on elections and voting behaviour would agree with that one on defeating a candidate by coalition of the opposition around a leading rival. This leads to the question – does it (coalitions as these) happen? If yes, what prevented it from happening in Trump’s case? The near impossibility of determining this curious phenomenon is the point of this post. I would argue that this is at best an academic quest which helps scholars but is lacks capacity to look beyond the process and account for the outcome. It appears sloppy on account of the fact that the reasoning (as quoted above) is used to argue that the candidates getting elected are not the right ones or desirable ones. It is theoretically correct that the winners lack the support of a majority of voters. The problematic bit comes next –

As with the Republicans and Mr. Trump’s flirtations with fear and violence, India now suffers the ill effects of a serious confusion when a plurality win is marketed as a majority victory. The Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012 to 2013 in Egypt provides another, and similarly disturbing, example; it helped to undermine democracy in Egypt altogether.

The assumption that the winning candidates in the cited examples from US, India and Egypt (party in this case) are ‘disturbing’ and have had negative consequences is the problem. This is an impressionistic inference. Let me present a counterview – that the inherent ability of a democratic setup in checking unrestrained behaviour of elected leaders prevents the ‘disturbing’ consequences from happening, although during campaign the contesting candidates might come across as potentially problematic if they act on their rallying points.

Systemic checks in a democratic setup: This is true of India and the US as history suggests. The system of governance – executive, legislature and the judiciary, are at least minimally robust enough to check the anti-public interest and self-serving (or even party serving) of the winning candidate when he is appointed. Except the period of emergency in India during Indira Gandhi’s reign, we can see no evidence of a leader running amuck with his own agenda. The analysis by Maskin and Sen stands reasonable on the electoral process but runs out of consistency when it comes to their assertion that this process produces winners who are likely to undermine democracy or are against the best interest of the country. It would have been nice to see a specific example supporting their assertion. In India, even a seemingly larger than life leader like Modi has had a tough rope walk in terms of appeasing the Hindutva groups supporting his party and keeping the interests of other minority groups in regard. It is not as straightforward as the article might suggest. When bad guys get elected bad things do not necessarily happen! A campaigning Donald Trump is very likely to undergo a change as Donald Trump in the White House. This change will be due to the candidate being given the power due to his electoral win. This power is not dictatorial. This power is not freewheeling. It comes with rules, conditions and protocols of decision making. And hence, it should not be assumed that a candidate pitching contentious and potentially divisive policies during campaigns, when given power will be able to do exact same things. That is the strength of the democratic system.  Otherwise, one can forever imagine and probably introduce more workable election procedures and keep finding problems with the winning candidate because he may end up acting in problematic ways. That failure of the winning candidate is not because he was not voted by the right procedure. What stands as a guarantee in the ranking system that the winning candidate who will ‘truly command majority support’?

If the challenge is to arrive at an election system which leads to a winner who truly commands majority support then that elegant suggestion by the authors is well taken. But for those who are keen on understanding leaders in roles of power and acting in full public glare, this is only a wishful arrangement. There are other variables like human behaviour which can lead to equally desirable or undesirable outcomes. The point is to throw light on those situations that can make a useful contribution to political theory.


Explorations in Marxist social theory & a book review



Image Courtesy: Wikimedia (for all)


This one will be a longer post than usual, but delights me especially because I could manage to get a somewhat minimal sense of the range of thoughts and ideas in the Marxist lineage, which has been a long going effort. The post includes a discussion of a clutch of the thinkers in a rather cursory form. This is guided along a fantastic anthology of essays titled Against Orthodoxy: Social Theory and Its Discontents by Stanley Aronowitz, that I happened to read as a part of a course on Development and Law. What made me pick this book is that Aronowitz has been a career trade unionist. With over three decades of work as a union member, I felt his commentaries merits a closer read. 

The development paradigm in the twenty-first century is characterized as predominantly capitalist. The processes that will achieve higher incomes, better living conditions and great prosperity for the people are believed to be those that operate in and through capitalism. Developing and less developed countries, it is seen are orienting their economies in a manner that they stand to gain from these processes of capitalism. For instance, export led growth is one such process which has gained widespread currency and for which there are rather strong success stories to learn from in Asia. If capitalism as a paradigm is believed to have occupied the center stage and is likely to stay, what then can be said of the tremendous destruction of environment, countries (as this is being written the failed states of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan continue to contribute headlines of humanitarian crisis every week.) as well as of human lives? How is it that despite the historic devastation of populations (World Wars) as well as planet’s natural resources which happened in twentieth century alone, capitalism still survived and in fact appears to be thriving in the twenty-first century, whereas socialism faded into memory, and in some cases, disgrace?

The above are the kind of questions that Aronowitz’s book Against Orthodoxy grapples with, by the way of his writings over a span of thirty five years from 1972 to 2015. The essays in the book are critiques of social theories and ideas of some of the leading writers of dissident Marxist social theory. The central theme that binds this long running rumination is to understand ‘the system that has produced such devastation as world wars and environmental crisis’ and how does it continue to march on. The essays are united in their problem of subjectivity.

The questions posed by the author emerge from the realm of social theory and in the process of their discussion happen to throw light on major global events and patterns. For instance, he begins by asking if capitalism’s hold on underlying populations is due to its promise, and occasionally fulfillment, of a better life signified by rising levels of consumption? And is the technological revolution of our time manifested in electronically driven communications, entertainments, and fantastic productivity increases so mesmerizing that a few can resist its blandishments? This is where critical social theories from thinkers like Marcuse, Lefebvre, Luckacs, Horkheimer, Gramsci and others are examined to understand how might their ideas assist in understanding these questions better or to even frame the question as the way it was, to begin with.

This collection of essays makes an enriching read to readers with particular interest in Marxist theory and critical social theory. Another burning question that appears to simmer throughout the book is – Is the prospect of fundamental social change so fearful that even when individuals and groups recognize the system’s limitations to fulfill good life, let alone its failures, people hold on to their hopes within the prevailing setup rather than seek alternatives? Or is the radical imagination dried up so that the available past solutions are so discredited that people are forced to live entirely in the present?

It may perhaps be noted that the book does not offer solutions but on how the thinkers included here analyze the problems. The book focuses on major social thinkers within the tradition of historical materialism and dialectical materialism. This is the orthodoxy the book talks of. They agree on the problems but differ among themselves about what is their nature and what is to be done. On the methodological front the book fixes itself intently on historical and dialectical materialism.

The following section offers a snapshot of the thinkers and aspects of their ideas that are discussed in the essays. Marcuse was a critical theorist who saw theory and action as a continuum. He speaks of “technological rationality” in capitalism, while believing that theory must specify material conditions for realization of human liberation.

A fascinating thought that shines through in reading Marcuse is the idea that labour movement’s fate is a barometer of political prospects. This is of tremendous relevance to the contemporary reading of labour movements in developing countries especially. Further, technology is constructed in conceptual sense as a form of social domination. Marcuse points out that individuality no longer mean self- development but instead the relentless pursuit of personal interests. He argues that Marx’s view that as soon as conditions are present, the workers knowledge of their own interests is sufficient for revolutionary action is not true because monopoly capital has found the means to level the proletariat and deprive it of the collective knowledge by which to lead itself.

From a brilliant commentary on Marcuse, Aaronotiwz trains his gaze on sociologists Raymond Williams and Likacs as well as on aspects of methodology. Raymonds, as a pioneer in cultural studies believed in labour movement. He believed it to be “the fundamental cultural institution of the working class and that workers remained “the key to any possible emancipatory social transformation.” On a somewhat parallel note the author notes that one needed a method that was sensitive to history and allowed for the interpretations involved in understanding to evolve.  And in the process, returning to the key question on understating the process of development he proposes that “knowledge about the object of study as well as a broad, deep comprehension of the world” is necessary for the development of understanding.

In another essay Aronowitz explains that Lukacs’ was an attempt to craft a theory in which the subject as much as the object played a formative role in forging history. His argument that the commodity form itself – a category of political economy – transformed relations among people into relations between things. This “thingification” of everday life thereby reified and appeared to make eternal capitalist system itself (this is in some ways derived from Marx’s “fetishism of commodities”). For Lukacs concept of alienation becomes a structural feature of the capitalist system of production and especially of social and political reproduction – here he departs from conventional Marxist theory of ideology.

The everyday life along this exploration of critical social theory enters the inquiry in this book with Lefebvre. The idea of “urbanism” is also credited to Lefebvre. His investigations were directed to the key question of why and how global capitalism, despite a century of unrelieved wars, revolutions, economic crises, and political turmoil in the both “advanced” and developing world, managed to survive. He notes that “whatever happens, alterations in daily life will remain the criterion of change” wherein daily life cannot be defined as a “sub-system” within a larger system. This too appears to be a departure from Marx’s conception of society and its processes.  Daily life is the site of and the crucial condition for the “reproduction of the relations of production”. Its colonization by the state and by economic relations provides the answer to the question of the survival of survival of capitalism in the wake of its horrendous 20th century history. The right to difference is for him a fundamental principle, especially for the effectiveness of the Left’s struggle for democracy.

In the series of essays, everyday life as an inquiry gives way to theory of political organization with which Gramsci’s ideas are explored. This makes a brilliant read for those who are looking forward to an introduction to Gramsci and neo-Marxist political thought.  Gramsci examines the concrete processes of social transformation and particularly how revolutionary forces out to proceed from the present conditions of economic, political and ideological hegemony to a moment when the “historic bloc” of excluded classes and other social formations may contest and win power. In India, one could think of the political party AAP and its electoral win in New Delhi at this juncture. In AAP one can see the observation that “every party is the expression of a social group” fitting well.

Perhaps for the reader of critical social theory and with interests in later thinkers like Horkheimer and Friere the last two essays would make for a high point of this brilliant collection by Aaronowitz.

Horkheimer is quoted by the author which at one level magnificently captures the state of the current state of political Left in India and at another level is a masterstroke in social theory in its prophetic nature –

“the revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming hem into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism”

With Friere the author deals with his ideas in power relationships as well as humanism, which are as rewarding a read as the rest of the book.

In summary, Against Orthodoxy is a book that maps the trend from from Revolution to Radical Democracy and grapples with the question of how capitalism still finds such a widespread acceptance. The book takes on the enterprise of revising and re-contextualizing Marxist theory. Along the course of the essays it points to battle fronts in which Left must venture if it has to combat capitalism arguing that the solutions would emerge if this fine interlinked web of social reality and self-consciousness is examined in enriched forms. The book in its writing style is dense and makes a difficult read but merits effort if one ones to get closer to the heart of Marxist social theory and critical social theory. And finally, it is a treat for readers interested in philosophical enquiry.

Knowledge of the past before us – History & Methodology


(For Isha)

This morning, Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University delivered a talk on Knowledge of the past before us, at IISc. Having bought her recently published book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History I was interested in her views on the methodological aspects of knowledge production. Also, that she has faced a good deal of criticism ( Whipping Girl of the Right ) from the ruling governments – present and earlier, both. Her works are elegant in their presentation and highly structured. This has been a part of the attraction to read essays and books by her. Although, her views are not necessarily agreeable. In an earlier post on ancient Indian system of education I suggested that one must look at historical evidence before believing any particular idea about the event in consideration. Though such a rational analysis and logical generalizations can take away the ‘romance of history’ as she has often suggested.

This morning it was about the instrumentality of  “time” in history. And this was a very interesting piece of analysis – that concept of time in history has been varied. There are two ways time was seen – a) cyclical (ex: Incas, Babylonians, Ancient Greeks, Mayans, Hinduism, Buddhism & its idea of wheel of time;  b) linear (ex: Judeo-Christian, Islamic idea of time beginning with the act of creation by God).

Indian idea of time is cyclical, which is cosmological in nature and represents a certain universal orientation. Then there was this shift from lunar calendar to solar calendar in the past (Vedic times) which facilitated the calculation of what is known as the “samvat”. This was a mix of mathematics, religion and history, as a method to construct time. Whereas, linear represented a certain human-centered idea of time. Perhaps, one can see the linear as an arc of the cyclical time as Thapar suggests too.

The larger argument was that “history does not come as a self-contained package”. It is constructed in various forms. It is the forms of usage of “past” which of course has a lot to do with the sense of “time”, which forms the manner in which one develops an understanding of history. She argues that historiographies can use past differently (this is also discussed in her recent book The Past as Present).  This bit of information is particularly interesting because it illuminates another possible reason and meaning for why art forms like poems, dramas and epics exist and get passed on over generations.

All societies over the centuries have constructed their past, often in accordance with contemporary theories about the meaning of past. The past therefore is represented in various ways: in the oral traditions of mythology, folktales, ballads – some of which were incorporated into literary forms as epics, narratives, drama and chronicles. This becomes the data of what we call ‘traditions’.

The three historiographies which use past differently are – a) Brahmanical tradition (Oral); b) Puranical tradition (Textual); c) Shramanic tradition (Buddism & Jainism). As for the reasons for adoption of different medium, Thapar speculates that the Brahmins realized that controlling the past can get them greater authority. And hence, the oral histories were extensively formed by brahmins.

Text as a medium, she argues, gives ‘data’ status and continuity. And therefore the project of puranas in Hinduism. The Shramanic idea on the other hand was that information of the sort that the Brahmanical and Puranic text dealt with, was not given by Gods. Instead, it believes that such information is a result of the contract between people. This idea is reflected in Buddhism and Jainism. Shramanic and Brahmanical traditions are embedded and are intrinsic forms of historical consciousness. For example, Mahabharata is referred to as ‘itihas’ (history) and Ramayana is referred to as ‘kavya’ (prose). These epics, Thapar cautions, may be seen as repositories of historic consciousness and not necessarily records of historic events.

Of what relevance one may ask is this discussion on ‘past’ to contemporary times? This is what I tend to instinctively ask when I hear these seemingly abstract conversations. The answer to this, I find lies in these few lines in The Past as Present:

In contemporary times we not only reconstruct the past but we also use it to give legitimacy to the way in which we order our own society. Given that with the advance of knowledge, we have more ways of discovering new evidence and of asking fresh questions of the evidence, we can therefore construct a past that is more credible and precise.

It is this precision of historical analysis that is required in the contemporary times in India when right wing political parties are hell bent on making history serve their interests than be an honest reconstruction of the past. Politics of the day is unfolding in the history textbooks in schools and universities – ‘saffronization of the textbooks‘  (Read: Mis-oriented Textbooks & Errors in textbooks)- and one of the ways to debunk is to deliberate on the methodology in practice of history and reconstruction of the past.

Awadh Punch: India’s Charlie Hebdo of Past

This was brewing for sometime now, with last evening’s conversation with an art historian bringing it all to a churn. Turns out that her father wrote for the legendary Awadh Punch, a satirical Urdu weekly published from Lucknow, which began in 1877. It was edited by Munshi Sajjad Hussain. Recollecting stories of the post-independence days in India, she recollected how charged and energetic were the times in which she grew up. There was, in her opinion, greater room for sharp, incisive and on-the-face criticism by the way of humour and satire, unlike the current years, especially with a BJP led government ruling India. Awadh Punch ( referred as AP hereon) was an Indian version after the tremendously successful Punch which began in 1841 in England was the heydays of the British Rule in India. This Urdu weekly contributed in another big way – the development of Urdu short story. Here is a chapter from Huseyn Suhravardy‘s work on AP and its contribution to Urdu short story and journalism. The satire and cartoons of Awadh Punch repeatedly poked a finger in the British government’s eyes with every opportunity and at every occasion. Another newspaper in the Deccan started around the same time was Kesari by B.G. Tilak which was a prominent voice for self-rule or swaraj.

In the similar league was another interesting newspaper – The Comrade. It ran  from 1911-1914 and an essay on the British mistreatment of the Turks but still encouraged them to join the Allies during WW1 did it in. The paper was shut down under the Press Act of 1910. What is remarkable about the journalism of this era in India is that the times (colonial administration) and the odds (state of technology and high costs) were several times greater than the present and yet there were these bold and fierce initiatives. This is quite a contrast to the current range of newspapers in India which seems to be ever so flexible in their willingness to pull down articles, not touch controversial issues and play safe.

The larger point is that political satire in India has had a rather long history which needs to be known. It might help recast the current intolerance of political opinion and the ways of presenting them in a comparative light. The current direction of thought is that political commentators in India are doing a fair job of criticizing the government and shaping public opinion. But a quick look at the late 19th and early 20th century newspapers and periodicals in India would tell you that this is a far cry from the early action in political commentary.

Mushirul Hasan, a noted Indian Historian writes,

The political uncertainties and the proliferation of newspapers in early 20th Century offered a variety of themes for political satirists to explore.

In another place he refers to cartoons as a medium and refers to AP’s work, which should be interesting to know for those thinking about the state of freedom of expression and intolerance of opinion post Charlie Hebdo attack:

Cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication. The volume of humour produced by this weekly had both variety and range. One of its offshoots was that political/social satire became an accepted and legitimate medium of experience. Indeed, the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore.


We need to be aware of and express, in an inventively humorous manner, the relationship between seemingly incongruous and disparate things. For this to happen, we must draw some wisdom from wit and humour in public life, past and present. Cartoons offer such rare insights into our political and cultural histories that they can be read as a document without undermining their artistic achievements.

His book Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: Awadh Punch, and Wit andWisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, 2012 offers a glimpse into the Indian versions of the Punch which came up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A selection of plates from AP are archived in the Digital South Asia Library of U. Chicago.

And here is a cartoon from AP on Afghanistan published in 1879, for a flavour (courtesy: The Public Archive) :

A cartoon from Awadh Punch on Afghanistan, 1879. Courtesy: The Public Archive

A scene from the second phase of the late war, the ex-Amir sitting on the ground with one end of a rope around his waist, the other in the hands of a British officer who is preparing to lead him away to exile; to the left, Sir FrederickRoberts standing by the side of a female figure, representing the Afghan nation, with an arm placed on the General’s shoulder.

The legend at the top is taken from a poem by “Ghalib” in which a Lover is supposed to say to his Mistress, when parting from her, “I have heard of the ignominious way in which Adam was forced to leave Paradise, but I am certain that he never felt half the remorse I now experience, when leaving your pleasant paths and sweet companionship.”

Right to Information: What has it changed in India?


From its early origin as a mass movement in a Rajasthan village in 1996 to a countrywide struggle for a Right to Information (RTI) Act which was passed in 2005, it has led to interesting and peculiar consequences to governance and bureaucracy in India. The current and earlier debates around RTI suggests that it has meant different things to different interest groups and the larger divide is seen in the way it is used by the urban and rural sections of the Indian society. A simple approach can be to examine RTI on the following aspects –

a)      Mode of action of RTI towards facilitating accountability

b)      Consequences of the availability of a tool like RTI in the hands of the citizens

c)       Analysis of the impact of RTI on effectiveness and accountability

 Action – RTI entitles a citizen an access to information related to public works, schemes, programs and all other activities of departments of the government that are concerned with welfare and provide services to the citizens (or those that affect the citizens in any direct manner), at the state and center level. Until 2005 the citizens’ demand for information could be turned down by the respective department if they wished to. The departments or offices would typically deny information using arbitrary or vague laws like the Official Secrets Act. But with RTI citizens now have a legal right to the information that they are seeking. This is a landmark change for an average Indian citizen in the 21st century India. It was practically unheard of a citizen making a ‘demand’ of any sort in any of the public offices before this act. That they can do it has hit the Indian bureaucracies at various levels like a tornado from which the only way to recover is to yield information and lighten up so that they are not swept away from their chairs and offices.

Structurally, RTI has altered the power relation between the state and civil society. RTI vests power in an individual to make a claim on the state. Let us examine this hypothetically – A is accountable to B if A’s work effects B and is obliged to offer explanation for it when B demands to so. When the explanation does not satisfy B, he can impose sanctions on A. This is how accountability arrangement between A, who is a bureaucrat and B who is a citizen, works. Before RTI, B could not have demanded an explanation. RTI has brought a shift in the power balance between A and B. Earlier A possessed power do deny B an explanation. Now, RTI enforces a legal mechanism to strengthen B’s demand for information from A. And in cases, it brings on a sanction on A for its actions.

ConsequencesAs in the case of MKSS’ movement in a village in Rajasthan to demand information from the village level bureaucracy on a welfare scheme, we see that the village administrative officer and the block development officer had to release accounts of expenditure and status of welfare schemes in the village. RTI has effect a public watch on the working of the bureaucracy. Today, eight years since RTI Act was effected, the government offices work with a clear knowledge that their actions and their work may be called for scrutiny by any member of the public at any point of time. Such a panopticon like gaze brought about by RTI has stemmed the rampant corruption amongst the street level bureaucracy. One must note that it has only stemmed corruption and not rooted it out.

Another consequence has been the use of RTI as a tool to make planning processes of public welfare schemes inclusive. For instance, detailed project reports on large scale infrastructure projects are required to be shared with the public and public consent for the plan must be sought. This brings in an enormous amount of scrutiny and pressure on governments to ensure public interests. This, from an environment where even simple questions were seldom asked or answered is a big leap into a public sphere where citizens now have an almost retributive power to challenge bureaucracy’s inaction or corruption.  Also, collusive type of corruption in which the bureaucrats and individuals with vested interests (or contractors) would team up to siphon resources or funds, is checked by other vigilant citizens’ groups. This has had interesting consequences on caste and group dynamics in the rural areas. The urban groups have used RTI to mount pressure on the urban local bodies to deliver essential civic services and address grievances. The use of RTI among the two groups is quite a contrast and makes an interesting socio-political study.

AnalysisRTI has impacted working of the government offices across the hierarchy – from lower to higher levels in varying but significant degree. On accountability both in rural and urban areas interesting uses of RTI have emerged. These suggest that RTI has been successful in creating the necessary pressure on the government in making it answerable to the citizens. At village level most of the public works information – especially financial information is displayed at the site or in panchayat offices. This has improved the performance of public schemes and to the least has made people aware that such a scheme was sanctioned for their village in the first place.

In cities citizen action groups have been successful in conduction public audits and question spending decisions of the public offices. Pension, healthcare and similar services have been made to perform better and without petty corruption (or at least reduced) by widespread use of RTI by urban middle class.

However, on effectiveness and efficiency of governments – state and center, RTI has had a lesser impact. This is due to the fact that effective government is not influenced by information pressure alone. For government to be effective it also needs to have institutional capacity and resources to deliver on the performance expectation. In addition to this, as a response to mounting pressure from RTI corruption has shifted from lower levels to higher ones such that it now affects government performance at a systemic level. For instance auction of natural resources – oil and natural gas exploration blocks, mining or telecom spectrum allocation have all seen scams which were led by highest level of bureaucracy and political system. Government effectivity has seen lesser impact by RTI than accountability.

RTI’s impact has been limited and highly context specific. In the spaces that it is designed to operate, it has performed fairly well, as evidence of RTI application figures and RTI based activism suggests. For the many problems that affect government performance in India like corruption, clientelism, red tape and time consuming procedures, RTI cannot be and must not be seen as a panacea. It is an end in itself. 

Engaging Modern Indian Political Thought – A discussion

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

‘The problem with Indian scholarship is that it lacks a robust, critical biographical tradition’ – This remark was made by historian Ramachandra Guha who spoke at the university this week on modern Indian political thought. It is striking because I have often felt the absence of scholarship on several forgotten heroes of Indian independence as well as in other spheres of life like armed forces and military in particular (which is a subject close to me). For instance, one of the few biographies on Indian Army Generals and perhaps the only one on General Thimayya was written by an English journalist Evans Humphrey. Lack of comprehensive works on several such noted Indians is of concern in Social Sciences. Also, to me it appears that a reason for Guha’s success as a writer is because his books are a result of extensive research that brings out several different aspects and narratives of the period in which his books are set. His book India After Gandhi alone has a dense and rich list of references and personalities whose lives could be taken up as exclusive subjects.

In a discussion this week, Sudhir poses questions to Guha which are set around 3 key themes – education, constitution and caste. The other context of this discussion is his book Makers of Modern India. We have been reading several chapters from this book to gain a better understanding of social interventions and political context in which people like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jyotirao Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar operated.

On Education – Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education is widely known as a backdrop to modern Indian education. But it is striking to read Raja Ram Mohun Roy (RRMR) making a similar argument many years before Macaulay. That if the government wants Indians to hold themselves in the modern world should the government be advocating teaching of Sanskrit? Or a language that the modern world understands?

Guha notes RRMR was not disparaging sanskrit but that the state should not be promoting learning of Sanskrit and Persian. He would be on RRMR’s side and that this reasoning is. In a similar vein years later under a more established British India, Jyotirao Phule castigates government spending on higher education as opposed to primary. His letter to the government reflects a thinking on what modern education should look like. As an author Guha explains that there is a logic to the sequence of chapters on RRMR, Syed Ahmed Khan and Jyotirao Phule. While there is some backward looking nostalgia of the Mughal decline in RRMR’s views, Syed Ahmed Khan is forward looking. Jyotirao is an extraordinary character whose ideas are a precursor of Ambedkar when he states that education must be available to all and that the system of modern education under the British is dominated by Brahmins. This progression of thought over time and in the views of the these three visionaries is quite interesting. It has vital sociological, political and historical insights to offer.

On Constitution of India – Referring to  Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly at the presentation of constitution one notes that he is at pains to state that the Constitution is not a very novel document. He asks what new can be said? Guha’s motivation to select this excerpt for his book Makers of Modern India suggests a peculiar motivation. Did Ambedkar genuinely believe that? As a question of intellectual histroy what they ended up doing with the Constitution is terribly novel suggest Sudhir. The very idea of novelty is not only played down by Ambedkar but also by Nehru who speaks after him. Why was disclaiming novelty such an important idea?

Guha notes that Ambedkar is a scholar. He wants to recognize what has come before him. Social sciences builds upon what has been done before. Ambedkar is also a modernist. But Guha then admits that he doesn’t know why are they (Ambedkar and Nehru) being so strategic in stating that the Constitution is not a novel document. Could this be then regarded as a task of great intellectual modesty by the makers of Constitution of India?

A more remarkable reading into this constitutional debate is the idea that the Constitution can achieve social revolution. In political thought there is no idea that a Constitution can do the job of a social revolution. Perhaps this is the punch of Constitution that it is a fine example of political thinking. The second excerpt in Guha’s book Makers of Modern India is about Constitutional method of advancing politics. This is in many ways absent in the current times. Guha suggest that there are 3 warnings in that speech in this excerpted concluding speech by Ambedkar –

  1.  Constitution is one man one vote. It is a call for social and economic equality.
  2.  On satyagraha as a means. Guha adds, “Let us be clear about one thing, that Ambedkar must have absolutely detersted the Maoists.” Violent revolutionary means of protesting when we were governed by a colonial power was ok. “But now to use it is grammar of anarchy.
  3. This is the “most striking and relevant warning. I remember it everyweek – of dangers of hero worship. Bhakti in religion can get you personal salvation. But bhakti in politics is a road to dictatorship. Whenever I see Narendra Modi speak on TV I think of Ambedkar” adds a clear and assertive Guha. “However great a person’s contrubution to his country be, you cannot lay down your liberties at his feet. Narendra Modi’s authoritarianism is complete. I am terrified at the thought of him becoming the PM.

On caste –  Caste is fundamental to our social life, to politics and to our law. Makers of Modern India does not take any position. The only position is that if one wants to understand the modern Indian social political order then forget Ashoka. That is not where one should begin to understand modern Indian political thought. The extraordinary intellectual ferment in the 19th century has been critical and it is a continuous tradition . The personalities included in Makers of Modern India are thinker-politicians. Thats a core interest. I have just tried to show the diversity adds Guha. Caste is constitutive of the Indian experience and of Indian democracy.

Following this Guha was on  a rapid fire mode on several questions that were posed to him. It is always a delight to see a clear minded and honest individual batting straight off than glossing over or sugar coating opinion.

  1. On ‘Amdedkarite fundamentalism’ – We need to be somewhat empathetic to this kind that in a sense they are paradoxical- the two words. Ambedkar was a reflexive thinker. If it is about being more empathetic to admiration of Ambedkar then one needs to be honest. Tribals have suffered more than dalits. A reason is that tribals have never had a rallying figure like Ambedkar. The duty of a scholar is to be honest. For instance, Arun Shourie wrote a shameful book on Ambedkar. He said 2 things – Amdekar was a tony of British. Ambedkar said abusive things about Gandhi. This was wrong. Superficially this could be true. If one quotes Ambedkar on Gandhi then quote Gandhi on Ambedkar as well. Shourie deliberately suppressed that part. It is a dishonest book.
  2. On ‘deification’ in Indian politics – It is quite a dark side and emerged with Indira Gandhi. Congress party was the first which abandoned the cadres. Marxists are the only exception. They deified Marx and Engels but have been austere in their personal lives like Manik Sarkar and Jyoti Basu. Only a cadre based party can avoid this. 
  3. On Swami Vivekanda – I knew criticisms would be made. I say on reflection I may have included him. The other person is Vishveshwaraya that I should have included. He was an original thinker in technology. Bose, Patel and EMS Namboodiripad do not find a place in this book . They were not original thinkers.
  4. On Ashish Nandy controvery at JLF – What Nandy said is indefensible and factually wrong. He could have just said, “Mere sey galti ho gayi hai” . What is wrong in saying that “what I said is factually wrong.” Of course he shouldn’t have gone to jail.
  5. On Gender – India has more powerful female political leaders than any other country. Yet the state of women is appalling. A part of the problem is that two major religions in India are profoundly irreducible to patriarchy – Hinduism and Islam. It is deeply encoded.

Stuff like this makes my time at the University worth. Otherwise, I have often felt I am better taking the road and get out, engage with the world in its real colours and not just the black typed text! 

On a lesser hero of Indian Politics – Lohia and Caste in Indian Politics


The following is a review of political thoughts and writings of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia who happens to be a lesser known figure of Indian independence movement and of the political transformation that unfolded in the 1950-70 period.

Lohia’s vision of egalitarian politics appears to be a case of lost opportunity for Indian politics and its leaders. It is a lost opportunity in a sense that had the rapidly rising regional political parties spared some time thinking about what kind of identity they are creating for themselves and their people they would have done much towards transforming the state of their lot as well as works towards nation building. This transformation one might add has often been the common denominator for almost all the political parties that have come up post- independence. Tragically, in India such a discourse on transformative politics remained on the fringes of mainstream politics. This mainstream comprised of the Congress party’s variety of politics by social consensus driven by political hegemony of small elite.

The following thoughts draw from Lohia’s essay “Towards the Destruction of Castes and Classes in India” written in 1959 edited by D.L Sheth. It outlines Lohia’s political and social ideas which he felt can transform society. His key concerns were – justice, equality and a society without caste in India which will lead to a certain variety of politics that is constructive and in the best interest of the nation. Democratic aspirations of Indian masses are based on caste and regional factors notes Lohia. Political coalitions built not on caste associations but on large and material interests will bring about a transformation in Indian society. A key concern to him remains the evil of caste system which must be tackled with a ‘crusade’ against it. The paper reasons that adult franchise may help in destroying upper caste domination. Noticing that regional parties are also caste parties, evidences of caste dynamics are cited from Maharasthra (with Mahars displacing Brahmins from their traditional place at the top of social domination), Tamil Nadu (with the two Dravidian parties asserting regional identities), Andhra Pradesh (where Harijan, Kammas and Communism have a peculiar political interaction) and Bengal. In all these states he observes that caste has significantly coloured the political processes. Most numerous group tends to acquire political and economic privileges. Therefore, if the disadvantaged groups of lower castes aspire to achieve such privileged position then it is imperative that they rise above the caste distinction. This is because a caste based association will never help them achieve numerical majority as there exist a vast variety of castes. He anticipates that this is problematic and will in the future lead to disastrous consequences to Indian politics and further to the vision of nation building which occupied the imagination of leaders of early decades of independence.

Lohia attempts to provide a radically different social and cultural basis to politics which transcends caste based distinction. He identifies that economic and power relationships have traditionally been allocated to hereditary groups by ritual status. Class stratification due to modernization has created gaps. These gaps are being filled by caste groups. Such a layered social structure will lead to inequities and in the end may not achieve what it ought to i.e. a complete abolishment of caste. Instead it will only lead to displacement of higher caste by lower caste in domination and power status.

He attempts to transcend caste – caste dichotomy and attempts to guide the political processes to the larger goal of nation building. The ruling class he observes has three characteristics – high caste, wealth and English education. These are the means through which the higher caste has made itself distinct from the lower castes. One must understand how this operates in order to realize social justice. This is further complicated by caste – gender segregation. Emerging social coalitions he suggests should be of ‘a single exclusive party of disposed and disabled humanity in the country’.

Considering the range of ideas and themes that Lohia engages with in this paper, he appears to be an original thinker, not necessarily in line with the prevalent political thought of his times. Influence of European socialist traditions on his political thought is evident when he considers the interaction between caste and class and tries to orient the course of struggle in a manner that caste based distinction is eliminated and various groups of people identify themselves under class.

It is remarkable how the arguments made by Lohia on caste and politics in his times are relevant today. He warned against caste – politics interaction that is likely to arise and a possible ‘politicization of castes’ and ‘casteisation of politics’. Both of these have now happened and in a good measure at that.  A recent controversy over Ashish Nandy’s comment on people from SC and ST community being corrupt and the consequent response from leading thinkers from SC and ST community is in many ways a realization of the scenario that Lohia warned against. The fracture in the Indian society in six decades of Independence are now prominent enough and is deeply polarizing public and social life in India. It is difficult for the diverse range of castes to imagine themselves without their caste label and instead think of themselves in any other way. For instance, they could identify themselves as Indians first (nationalism too is problematic, but perhaps much lesser than caste) yet the first choice seems to be caste.

This said, peripheral location of Lohia’s thoughts in India politics should also be noted. How could Indian society where caste and social heterogeneity is so deeply entrenched start thinking with a completely new frame – that of no caste. It can be argued that caste assertion has brought about a positive change in the social, economic and political situation of lower caste as well.

It is not his job! On politicians, development and development agencies

A water tanker supplying drinking water in a slum of Doddaballapura. Unlike many other tankers for which people pay as much as Rs 2.50 for a pitcher ( 7-8 liters), this tanker is sponsored by a local politician. (Pic from the report. Courtesy - Praveena Sridhar)

A water tanker supplying drinking water in a slum of Doddaballapura. Unlike many other tankers for which people pay as much as Rs 2.50 for a pitcher ( 7-8 liters), this tanker is sponsored by a local politician. (Pic from the report. Courtesy – Praveena Sridhar)

From a recent report that we prepared for an NGO, a reader asked “What is that MLA’s incentive to push for proper/improved drinking water system” referring to a small case study on a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in a constituency who was trying to help the drinking water crisis in his town.

So here are some ways of looking at the situation and assess what his incentive might be –

  1.  It is not the MLA’s business to provide or even push for proper drinking water system. He belongs to the “legislative” wing. Water provision is the responsibility of the “executive”. So if he does that then it is a transgression, in its strict sense. However, these transgressions are widely observed in many regions of the country and therefore one has to deal with it. One reason, as an extension of the above thought is that he is “appeasing” his electorate. Then, that it is easier for him to rally for this cause as it is widely felt among the people and that it is visible in its effects. If there is any improvement in the water situation then that too gets immediately felt among the people and therefore he gets a clear and fair mileage (politically) if he gets into this.
  2. An explanation that he is the “saviour” might not be so true because the politicians themselves clearly realize today that they can be quickly kicked off their chairs if he keeps the hubris of being a parent/saviour of the people. The relationship has gone more transactional with people becoming increasingly aware of methods to rally for their cause.
  3. From a Weberain (Marx Weber’s work on bureaucracy) perspective it can be argued that we do not know his calculation/motivation. As an individual how is he locating himself in the political mesh of power and its dynamics would be a determinant of his motivation to act on a particular issue in his constituency. This is ‘politics in practice’ and not how it ought to be!
  4. Executivisation of the Legislature – This phenomenon is one of the concerns of governance in the present times. The legislative in several different ways and mechanisms is adopting the role of executive. Our case of an MLA servicing water in a locality is an instance of this. This is exacerbated by the provision of MLA Development Fund, which is a small purse of a few crores granted to the MLA to spend on his constituency. This some argue is absolutely unconstitutional and must be done away with. A case in point is Bihar state. The Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, in his first term abolished the MLA Development Fund system in the state and directed that if it is development work that the MLAs need to carry out in their constituencies then they might as well ask the state government itself for the funds.

In effect what the above points establish is that our case where the MLA pushes for a proper drinking water system is a complex issue. It is not singular in its motivation. That MLA’s behaviour is situated in a complex web of contemporary politics, bureaucratic functioning and relationship between legislature and executive.

Our other concern is how a development agency situates its work in such a landscape. In another instance we see that an MLA in AP state ‘hijacks’ a development agency’s work in providing the clean drinking water by advertising his name for the little support that he provides to the dev agency in its work. Ideally, it should not matter to the dev agency if its goal of provisioning clean drinking water is still being achieved.  But in practice it matters to the agency as it also wants to further its work and therefore tries to ensure visibility. Also that this visibility is to let its own donors know that the work was done and it was done in this particular region. The dev agency in order to prevent this hijack and avoid getting caught in a sticky situation should first begin with understanding the context and dynamics, just like we saw above that the motivation as well as the role that the MLA was playing is different from what he ought to do. An understanding of this would then place the dev agency in a much better situation to take a decision on partnering with the political agency.


The above is a result of discussion with Prof. Narayana at APU  and @praveenasridhar who has authored the report and done all the field work. 

From that midnight ‘tryst’ to the high noon – Indian democracy

The recent gangrape in Delhi and the government’s response to the demonstrations in the city has been the most disappointing sight for me. Corruption, scams, policy screw ups… all that was fine with me. But stifling such a protest wasn’t what I thought one would see in India at least (like shutting down metro stations to prevent protestors from getting together). This set me exploring how far has India come along on the democracy road or has it actually drifted away from its path?

Independent India was all about experiments and grand ones at that to begin with. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, felt that the new born nation cannot afford the revolutionary way of the left nor can it afford to be socialist in its approach to nation building. He proposed “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems- the Russian, the American and others- and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”[i] With independence, India’s political landscape began transforming in a manner that would later have accumulated as not quite favourable or even reasonably reflecting democracy in spirit. Sudipta Kaviraj articulates the phases of political transformation as an early period of realignment (that happened around independence), experimentation (when India moved to a passive capitalist growth led economic system), consolidation and instability (a degenerative phase of Nehruvian ideas and Indo-China, Indo-Pak wars). [ii]

Although many views on how old is democracy in India exist, with some Hindu nationalists also claiming that the appointment of kings too was democratic and that the idea of democracy is not new to India. It is also argued that with the British, democracy has only revisited India. These scripture based reasons of democracy are of little relevance to the scope here. It should be interesting to map the emergence of democracy in a post-colonial India. That democracy arises from a peculiar set of historical, social and economic circumstances is helpful in explaining much of the values that independent India inherited, which determined its approach to nation building and governance.

While presenting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that “democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organization”.[iii] Ambedkar made remarks in that address to the Assembly, which in hindsight appear landmark. These can also be considered as a benchmark to understand that where did India aspire to start and where did it set its eye as a democracy. Doing this, we can then look at the events and explore if she did reach anywhere near that or has only gone wayward in the six decades since Independence. Ambedkar reasoned that three things must be done if India wishes to maintain democracy not only in its form but also in fact. First, he emphasizes, is that constitutional methods must be adhered to, for achieving social and economic objectives. When the nation didn’t have a constitution, movements resorting to unconstitutional methods might have been justified, but now that there is one, no justification stands reasonable for resorting to unconstitutional means. Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’, as used post-Independence, was also viewed as an unconstitutional way to achieve an objective which a group felt was in its interest.

Contrasting this view with recent movements in anti-corruption, people’s rights to natural resources, right to reservation in public services etc, one can notice the divergence from the original thought that India set out with. Second, that in a democracy people should not vest so much power in a single person or leader that he may subvert the institutions. Any form of ‘hero worship’ too must be avoided. Although, there is nothing wrong with honouring great men for their service, there are limits to being grateful. Third, Ambedkar urges people not to be content with political democracy alone. He reasons that social democracy must form the base on which political democracy rests. Social democracy, he states, is a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life.[iv]

This address in November 1949, by Ambedkar sets the larger context of understanding of democracy in India and the practice of it. Although, it is debatable how it unfolded over the years, the intent it can be said was much as Ambedkar outlined while presenting the draft Constitution

Democracy- Increasing divide in spirit & practice

When Congress came to power, a realignment of the earlier order happened, as Sudipta Kaviraj articulates. To some within the party, Congress’ departure from reformist agenda was a great concern. For Nehru, as a Prime Minister, democratic social transformation became an integral part of economic strategy. This turned out to be at odds with the socialist ideas as well. He pointed to “country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other”.[v] These differences marked the changes that Congress underwent, and its emergence as a party led by Nehru’s ideas about nation building. In this approach, India got its first streak of capitalist development by the way of extensive planning exercises and massive government programs in infrastructure building and public sector enterprises. This shift is important to note because in about a decade’s time a heavy bureaucratization of the government takes place which in later years would come to determine (and undermine) the democratic process in the country. Nehru’s industrialization led approach to growth and modernization had a good run during the period 1950-1964. But it also had consequences which would lead to serious polarization of Congress party, a national dissatisfaction on over emphasis on industrialization whereas India was still agrarian (with a majority of them being small farmers) and an over dependence on Soviet technology and assistance. These factors eventually precipitated into disillusionment and a political crisis with the death of Nehru in 1964. The phase of assertion by regional political parties and establishing their rule in Indian states was about to begin. Within three years of Nehru’s death, the CPI (M) managed to regroup in many Indian states and run for election in those states. Similarly, the rich farmers from the northern belt had formed stronger associations to assert themselves. Several other forms of associations and regional political parties had begun to emerge making the larger political scene noisier and diverse. Theoretically, democracy was actually being well lived by representation from several different groups, communities and classes that India is made of. But this did not guarantee that the government, its institutions and its work was all in public interest.

Indira Gandhi came to power after Nehru, her father, passed away. This was a period of political turmoil which was answered by appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor. Her coming to power marks a major blow to the spirit of democracy in India but in a way it also helped the country look back at what it started with, and attempt a reorientation. It is paradoxical that Indira Gandhi’s style led to a gradual decline of election based choice of leaders within the party and at the same time her rise as a leader nationally. Her mass appeal and the ability to directly connect with the masses bypassing the regional leaders was an interesting phenomenon. While she was leading a party (Congress), everything in the party was about decisions made by her and passed on to the party members. Critical political decision making also began shifting to higher levels of bureaucracy. This had a very debilitating effect on Congress party. Nationally, elections turned into populist referendums which completely undermined the electoral process. The period of emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 is another landmark in the progression of democracy in India. This 18 month period made a good time for leaders and the people of India to experience what it is like to exist in a space of limited or no civic rights that democracy guaranteed. Patronage and cronyism infiltrated politics even when Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1985. During this entire period, the gulf in practice of democracy kept widening, but it would be difficult to present a contrary argument that India on the whole did not move towards becoming more democratic. This is because in spite of severe damages done to the political system by feudal and class led politics, the chaos that it caused only made several other groups emerge and put up a strong opposition. Although, the emergence and assertion of political parties from minority groups did take a considerable time, the sum total of the events by a great measure, moved towards heterogeneity and multi-party political system.

Dalit groups emerged faster as a consequence of this higher class dominated politics. For instance, formation of dalit political parties like Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers and more importantly BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) which was formed in 1984. From its formation in 1984 to its emergence as single majority party in 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, BSP makes an interesting case in rise of oppressed and marginal groups in the political system of India. This could also be seen as a consequence of the early democratic principles that were enshrined in the Constitution of India. It could also be said that the process took a considerable time. But the fact that it emerged on its own accord and from the people themselves makes it peculiar and also ensures that the change is lasting.


i) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010
ii) Kaviraj, Sudipta, (1988), A Critique of the Passive Revolution, in Chatterjee, Partha, State and   Politics in India, OUP 2002 
iii) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010.
iv) Constituent Assembly of India – Volume Date Accessed, Sept 30, 2012
v) Harrison, Kevin and Boyd, Tony, Understanding political ideas and movements. Manchester University Press, 2003