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Indian Elephant goes to polls

by FarEasterner Sun Apr 19th, 2009 at 04:53:33 AM EST

Yesterday 714 millions registered voters in India started to exercize their democratic franchise in the world's biggest elections. Regions were divided by Election Commission in 5 parts voting every week upto May 13th and then election results for 543 constituencies will be declared. States like Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Sikkim vote also for state assemblies according to custom of last decades. So what does Indian democracy look like? What is her nature and how is she similar or different to so-called Western democracies?

Promoted by whataboutbob

First few words about definition of Western democracy, maybe I have different perception of it. No doubt it's admirable and on the large effective political system which evolved over considerable time since late medieval bourgeois revolutions. Whatever people may think about conditions in the West for real competition for power between different classes (many think it's plutocratic democracy where ruling cliques monopolized mass media and party machines of few large parties which naturally restrict dissidence and prevent rocking the boat) it's undeniable that the West achieved considerable results in recent centuries. Western democratic system apparently facilitated scientific and technical progress which helped the West to colonize almost all the known world to the beginning of 20th century. After devastating two world wars the West had emerged stronger than its erstwhile adversary Communism and had won the Cold War. Now with current economic crisis some tempt to think that the very foundations of Western democracies are shaken. But in context of this article we may leave the question of the West's destiny and capacity for inherent necessary changes open and turn our attention to India.  

Indian democracy is the curious case, first of all it's inherently different from what we see in the homogenized West. In many aspects it's complete opposite of the Western societies and democratic system was developed here under different conditions and served not seldom for different purposes.

India from beginning of 19th century till 1947 was British colony and Indian democracy and society was peculiar creation of both Indians and British colonizers. For example take the caste which now permeates the whole fabric of Indian society. Undeniably this was ancient Indian institution but it was spread in few areas in the north which underwent thorough Aryanization long ago. In other parts of the country before British Raj there were no castes at all, in Western and Southern India as well as along the whole Himalayan region people did not regard caste as identification mark.

British colonizers after 1818's victory over Marathas had acquired Paramountcy in the subcontinent. So they started to think how to rule their extensive dominion especially after 1820 when ad-hoc administration of soldiers gave the way to political control heavily influenced by prevalent social ideas at home. The colonizers' first desire was simple - to anglicize (westernize) Indian population, this approach held upper hand up to Great Rebellion of 1857. Basic idea of course was natural backwardness and conservatism of Oriental societies and they were expressed by historian James Mill in his "History of British India" and utilitarian-inspired reforming official Thomas Macaulay. They energetically argued for purge of "horrific customs" like Sati and the cult of Thugs at the same time wanted to create class of Indians "English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect" who would be their natural collaborators. No need to say that these "ambitious hopes were frustrated by Indian intransigence, untrustworthy intermediaries, penny-pinching and the many expedient compromises of everyday reality".[1]          

After great shock of Indian mutiny in 1857 British realized they need the system more firmly rooted in Indian traditions. So they embarked on mammoth process of systematization of their knowledge about Indian society and gradation, calibration of different social groups. The process was like as Maria Misra had put it in her "Vishnu's crowded temple":

"This was rather as if seventeenth-century Europe had been colonized by a phalanx of Indian scholars-bureaucrats who decided to run Britain according to the highly idealized notion that power and status flowed from a medieval three-estates system (priests-knights-peasants). Informed be eager prelates, these Indian colonizers would have been convinced that the clergy enjoyed higher status than land magnates and generals, and that those bearing the surname Tanner and Gardener lay beyond the pale of civilized society. ... they would also have learnt that Catholics and Protestants constituted such profoundly estranged groups that they required entirely separate set of laws to govern them. Further, in segregating Britons into the "loyal" and "disloyal", these empire builders would have drafted only Celts, Highlanders and Catholics into the imperial army, while dismissing lowland Protestant Englishmen as hopelessly feeble and effeminate".[2]

Thus policy of establishing hierarchies (or as some might say "divide and rule") had gathered steam towards the end of 19th century and curiously resulted in casting Indian castes and natural differences in stone. If majority of Indians did not know about caste (it's Portuguese word applied to Indian varnas) they knew very well about jatis. Jati is a clan or a sort of professional guild bound by close relationships and sometimes common ancestry. There are thousands of jatis in India, many moved freely up and down social ladder in pre-British era. These jatis were arranged by British in four castes. Of course people resisted labeling them as backward or oppressed castes and used forgeries and pseudo-scientific treatises to claim more noble descent. Note: Misra in her book gives many examples of "sanscritization", I as historian know also many forgeries, for example treatises about mysterious Kalabhras (rulers of South India in 4-6 centuries who left almost no definite information and thus provided rich ground for wild speculations).

Thus India of 20th century became a unique society where, of course, democracy and the rule of law exist, yet where an individual's status is determined to large extent by his (her) origin and supposedly traditional identities of caste and religion. As Misra think this "remarkable coexistence of formal equality with notions of hierarchy and difference that helps to explain the distinctiveness of modern India. .. Its democracy is vibrant, its elections great public tamashas (festivals), its politicians spectacles in themselves - if not always edifying ones".

It's true, Indian politicians are always interesting to watch. Just another day in humoristic program on NDTV there was "presentation" of one the most notorious politicians in northern India, Sadhu Yadav. He recently left Rashtriya Janata Dal, a party led by his sister Rabri Devi and her husband, current Railways minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. Now he represents biggest hope for ruling Congress party in the poorest Indian state Bihar. Rabri Devi's puppet was presenting him in peculiar (and very funny to listen) Hinglish, with lots of "hai" and "na", which is distinctive speech marks for uneducated people.

Lalu is synonymous for corruption, in 1990s he embezzled many millions of the state fodder fund. After his indiction and enjailing he had put his allegedly illiterate wife Rabri Devi, mother of 9 children, on the throne of Bihar and she ruled as Lalu's proxy for 9 years till 2005. Of course the family is important for Indian politicians and Lalu's and Rabri's families were ruling clans in Bihar, occupying important posts under their regime.

In Man Booker-prize winning novel "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga there is vivid description of life and politics in poorest regions of India. He was cautious enough to change many circumstances so he cannot be sued over defamation but otherwise it's very close to truth:

"All of us in the tea shop had to be eighteen, the legal age to vote. There was an election coming up and the tea-shop owner had already sold us. He had sold our fingerprints .. which the illiterate person makes on the ballot paper...he had got a good price for each one of us from the Great Socialist party.

Now the Great Socialist had been the boss of the Darkness for a decade...Some .. said [he] started off as a good man. He had come to clean things up, but the mud of Mother Ganga had sucked him in. Others said he was dirty from the start, but he had just fooled everyone and only now did we see him for what he was. Whatever the case was, no one seemed to be able to vote him out of power. He had ruled the Darkness, winning elections after elections, but now his rule was weakening.

You see, a total of ninety-three criminal cases - for murder, rape, grand larceny, gun-smuggling, pimping, and many other such minor offences - are pending against the Great Socialist and his ministers. Not easy to get convictions when the judges are judging in Darkness, yet three convictions have been delivered, and three of the ministers are currently in jail, but continue to be ministers. The Great Socialist himself is said to have embezzled one billion rupees from the Darkness, and transferred that money into a bank account in a small, beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money
There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and elections fever...Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh...For years there was a deal between the landlords and the Great Socialist - but this year something had wrong with the deal, so the four Animals [landlords] had joined together and started a party of their own: ALL INDIA SOCIALIST PROGRESSIVE PARTY (LENINIST FACTION)".

Let's return to our Sadhu Yadav's NDTV presentation. Portly politician in traditional kurta-pyjama with unshaven chin looks fierce and strong, he nurtured political ambitions long ago and had many differences with Lalu in the past. Now Lalu calls him "a traitor". Rabri Devi's puppet continues: "Sadhu Yadav has only 5 issues from his wife and many more with Indian Penal Code - article 147, 148, 149, 343, 567... For dacoitry (banditism), extortion, kidnapping, rioting, murder, attempt to murder etc. But I know he is innocent, only these Congress-wallas poisoned his mind and force him to do all the wrong things. No, he has no my sympathy, I cut off any relation long ago (she is shown having lunch with Lalu). Ok, bye.". So what we should think about refined and elitist Congress led by hooty-pooty PM Manmohan Singh and madame Sonia Gandhi. Congress was not satisfied with three seats (out of forty in Bihar) given by Lalu and desperately wants to revive its organization in the state. That's why long-time allies in the centre Congress and RJD had parted ways and Congress has no choice but use the services of such strongmen with grassroot support and many criminal cases in a tow like Sadhu Yadav.

However in 2005 right wing coalition led by Janata Dal (Union) and BJP threw Rabri and Lalu out of power and started clean up of hopelessly corrupt and inefficient state machinery in Bihar. New chief minister Nitish Kumar (of JDU) belongs fortunately to low caste of Kurmis and has clean reputation and represents hopes for future of the land where Buddha got Enlightenment in 530 BC.

So widespread perception that Indians divided by castes and religious lines prefer to view the state as a source of enrichment for their particular group rather than an agent for the common good is not wholly true. Yes, India is moving on different plates, its religious communities are increasingly isolated, there are grotesque inequalities and ubiquitous violence. However, democratic system in such creative, vibrant and attractive society as India defied predictions of quick collapse, helped to preserve unity of the country after World War II and Partition, maintained relative peace and left possibility for necessary internal changes like in Bihar.

Post: quotes [1] and [2] above are taken from wonderful book "Vishnu's Crowded Temple" of Maria Misra, lecturer on Modern History at Oxford University, also I'd like to recommend "India After Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha - comprehensive and thoroughly researched, yet beautifully written the history of the world's largest democracy.

Really appreciate your Asian political/social updates & commentary, FarEasterner - thank you!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Apr 17th, 2009 at 02:50:43 AM EST
seconded, i was hoping you'd do this, it's great.

thanks FE. we are so short of asian political reporting.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Apr 17th, 2009 at 08:42:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've got interesting comment on DailyKos

Isn't this very revisionist? While I tipped you for effort, I would contend that your saying that the caste dynamics in modern India are the doings of the British is a bit much. Let us admit that, as with all other religions, Hinduism had its share of loony theories about people and their place in this world. Unless inter marriage becomes the norm, I wouldn't believe for a minute that the people have shed their caste affinity. I am not that interested what had happened. I am more interested in what is going to happen.

Revisionist? Perhaps.

In China history was always viewed as the most important state-run business (maybe only recently it was replaced by finance ministry) that legions of scribes and historians were rewriting history with each new dynasty of "sons of heaven", then to suit tastes and theories of nationalists and communists. However China, it seems, is not unique in this murky business - all want to see rosy picture of their nation's past, trying to brush under carpet inconvenient episodes. Curiously enough many Indians also are not aware of development of supposedly traditional institutions like caste or ban on cow slaughter. On the contrary because caste identity became so useful commodity in modern Indian politics I would not be surprised if Indians would deny the British hand in promoting this weird institution.

Sorry if I could not write more - all this week I spent mostly in bed fighting cold and fever which I caught because of inconsistent weather in Himalayas - one day it's raining and chilly, another sunny and hot, then it's windy and so on.

by FarEasterner on Sat Apr 18th, 2009 at 09:49:40 AM EST
As I read your diary I realized that a very similar phenomenon unfolded here in the United States with regard to "our Indians" (Native Americans). Today most people think of them in terms of tribal units - Navajo, Cherokee, Nez Perce, Seminole, etc. But this was a classification imposed by British and American administrators, not one that could easily be found in pre-contact communities.

Typically Native Americans identified with clan networks, which were bound together by a variety of factors - land rights, language, marriage and ancestry. These networks were very complex, and permeable, especially in the richer and more densely settled parts of North America, such as the Pacific Northwest.

Only during the period of American settlement, when these networks had been devastated by disease, did the notion of a "tribe" emerge. For example, surviving peoples living in what is now eastern Washington were all grouped together as the "Yakama" tribe even though some had no clan relationships, and this was repeated across the country.

What made these tribal identities stick was the law and government practice. Reservations were set for the "Yakama" people, and so on, making what had been an arbitrary definition very real. This was amplified when tribal governments were created. Over the course of 100+ years, these tribal identities became fixed in place, even though they hadn't existed prior to contact with Euro-Americans.

And the world will live as one

by Montereyan (robert at calitics dot com) on Sun Apr 19th, 2009 at 09:26:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I recall a comment that in Hindu society the British fortuitously stumbled onto perhaps the only society that had a more rigidly stratified class system than that of Britain.  The comment was by a sociologist teaching a   History course entitled "The Expansion of Europe" at the University of Arizona in the early '60s.  I was also aware that the so called "Dravidian" people, who had been on the Indian sub-continent prior to the arrival of the "Indo-European" Hindu peoples had a very different culture from that of the Hindu, and that they had been pushed into the margins in the north but were the great majority in the south.

Dravidian languages, such as Telugu in Andhra Pradesh sort of merged with Sanskrit vocabulary.  Buddhist traditions had been spread over all of the sub continent during the time of Ashoka and the Maurya Empire in the period prior to the Current Era, but Buddhist religion does not imply Hindu social custom.  What is known of social customs in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, etc. prior to the arrival of the Europeans?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Apr 19th, 2009 at 11:22:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
egions were divided by Election Commission in 5 parts voting every week upto May 13th and then election results for 543 constituencies will be declared.

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 19th, 2009 at 04:54:34 AM EST
Too soon to tell?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Apr 19th, 2009 at 11:34:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By about 4 weeks...

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 20th, 2009 at 04:34:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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