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.


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. 

Micro-managing the odds

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Micro-managing the odds” an Op-Ed piece in The Hindu by Srikrishna Ayyangar a Professor in Politics at APU. It looks at the this year’s Magsaysay Award winner IVDP’s work and relates it to the larger political process in Tamil Nadu. It is simple and clear in argument. However, I do not quite agree with the idea that scaled-up organizations like IVDP actually participate or even effect political processes in any measure.

I think in that sense IVDP is an exception and the article too indicates this towards the end. The ‘scaled up’ organizations (like IVDP) do not stand up, in spite of having a fair degree of capability and social strength to do so as we have seen in our work in Tamil Nadu. They ensure that they are at a safe distance from the political dynamics and maintaining that distance they drive their agenda, whatever that may be- health, education, livelihood etc. It is only the activist, ‘people’s struggle’ sort of groups like PMANE who tend to take things head on. May be that this too is a generalization, but a fertile ground to explore how civil society-politics relationships can bring about positive social outcomes in an informed manner, not just as unintended consequences. In my experience, I have found larger NGOs (by this I mean NGOs with an annual budget of Rs 5 crore and upwards) only maintain a minimal interaction with the political end-points, just the amount that can let them go their way.

It will be a while before I can line up substantial observations towards this.

On Post-Colonial Politics in India & Development’s Refugees

One of the most satisfying moment for me lately has been about doing a field study and then returning to the desk to rigorously engage with the subject, in a way that the field observations actually test the theory. In this case, I return from an exploration of hawkers’ livelihoods to the political framework that Partha Chatterjee proposes – of a ‘civil society  and a ‘political society’ in a nation-state.

The following is a presentation which draws a theoretical parallel between Partha Chatterjee’s work and  our field observations.