In six decades of 'progress' India hasn't realised our founders'
vision of social democracy
Special Issue: Sweet 60: Republic Day Special
Over the years, the makers of modern India have been parochialised by
the sect or state to which they originally belonged. Rabindranath
Tagore, whose stories and especially essays are of universal appeal,
is now considered an icon of Bengalis alone. Vallabhbhai Patel,
without whose efforts India would not be a united nation, is now
hardly remembered outside Gujarat. Jawaharlal Nehru, who helped
nurture a democratic ethos across India, is now the property of a
A fourth Indian who has become a victim of sectarian diminution is
B.R. Ambedkar. He is now known only for his contributions to the
emancipation of the subaltern castes. To be sure, he did a great deal
to instil a sense of dignity among the oppressed. But we seem to have
forgotten that he was not just a militant Dalit, but also a wise
democrat, whose life and thought can profitably be studied by all
Indians, regardless of the caste or religion to which they belong.
This week, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Indian republic.
Our republic owes its existence to a constitution whose drafting was
overseen by Ambedkar. In his last speech to the Constituent
Assembly—delivered on November 25, 1949—Ambedkar issued three warnings
that are compellingly relevant to the predicament that the nation
finds itself in today. First, he urged his compatriots to "abandon the
bloody methods of revolution". In the circumstances of colonial rule,
there were grounds for taking to the streets to protest, and even
perhaps to use violence. But with the coming of a free, sovereign and
democratic republic, wrote Ambedkar, "there can be no justification
for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the
Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for
Ambedkar would have been appalled by the activities of his fellow
Maharashtrian, Raj Thackeray. But he would have had no time either for
the Maoists, who claim to speak on behalf of the disadvantaged. He
would have urged them to persuade rather than coerce citizens to their
point of view, to abandon the gun and enter the democratic process
that the Constitution had legitimised.
The Indian republic's promise of equality that Jaipal Munda banked on
has been belied in the last 60 years.
At the same time, Ambedkar would have been sharply critical of the
conduct of the mainstream political parties themselves. In that final
speech to the Constituent Assembly, he invoked John Stuart Mill in
asking Indians not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great
man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their
institutions". There was "nothing wrong", said Ambedkar, "in being
grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the
country. But there are limits to gratefulness". His worry was that in
India, "bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or
hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by
the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world.
Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in
politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to
When he spoke these words, Ambedkar may have had the possible
deification of the recently martyred Mahatma Gandhi in mind. But they
seem uncannily prescient about the actual deification of a later and
lesser Gandhi. In the early 1970s, Congressmen began speaking of how
"India is Indira and Indira is India", a process that culminated, as
Ambedkar had foreseen, in the eventual dictatorship of the Emergency.
Now, a generation later, the party chooses to be more ecumenical,
distributing its veneration equally among four Gandhis, two of whom
are deceased (Indira and Rajiv), two others living (Sonia and Rahul).
Last year, on a visit to Arunachal Pradesh, I was taken from the Rajiv
Gandhi University—where I was staying—to see the Indira Gandhi State
Museum. The next day, I drove from Itanagar to Guwahati. Just before
crossing the Brahmaputra, I passed a gleaming yellow structure built
by the Assam government—this, a board informed me, was the Rajiv
Gandhi Indoor Stadium.
Such naming of parks, offices, airports, sarkari schemes and so on
after Indira and Rajiv is ubiquitous across India. Their contributions
are remembered and honoured; their errors forgotten or suppressed.
They are even given credit for policies that were actually the work of
other Congress prime ministers. Thus party and state propaganda insist
that Indira rather than Lal Bahadur Shastri initiated the Green
Revolution, and that Rajiv rather than P.V. Narasimha Rao liberalised
The cult of the Nehru-Gandhis, dead and alive, is deeply inimical to
the practice of democracy. It has led to the corruption and corrosion
of India's premier political party, whose own example in this regard
has been eagerly followed by the regional formations. Travelling
through Tamil Nadu last month, I was met at every turn by ever-larger
cutouts of the heir apparent, M.K. Stalin—of Stalin smiling, Stalin
writing, Stalin speaking into a cellphone. The only other place where
I have felt so stifled by a single face was in the Syria of Bashar
Assad; but then the last time I went to Punjab, the Badals were in
opposition, and I have not visited Lucknow since Mayawati became chief
The founders Ambedkar at a Constituent Assembly meeting
Parties professing violent revolution are antithetical to democracy;
so, too, warned Ambedkar, are parties based on the principle of bhakti
or hero-worship. The proliferation and increasing influence of the
political family firm has led, as he had feared, to the subversion of
our public institutions. In New Delhi, the Congress chooses ministers,
governors and secretaries to government on the basis of loyalty or
sycophancy rather than competence. The same practice is followed by
regional parties with regard to the public offices that lie within
their gift. Sometimes, it is the power to bribe rather than the
ability to flatter that proves decisive in obtaining the job one
India has been called a "dynastic democracy". Perhaps it would be more
accurate to call it a darbari democracy. The atmosphere in national
and state capitals resembles nothing so much as a medieval court.
Intrigue and gossip are rife. Those who seek public office nudge
themselves ever closer to the inner circle of the King, the Queen, or
the Prince-in-Waiting. Those who already hold public office have one
eye on their job and another on what needs to be done,
sycophantically, to retain it. This is as true of Mayawati's Lucknow
and Karunanidhi's Chennai as it is of Sonia's New Delhi.
Things are only superficially different in states dominated by
ideologies rather than personalities. Where the Bharatiya Janata Party
is in power, political preferment is crucially dependent on one's
equations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In communist-ruled
West Bengal, even secretaries to government and vice-chancellors are
known to make regular visits to the CPI(M)'s headquarters in Alimuddin
Street. Here, as elsewhere in India, a vast majority of jobs in the
state sector, whether of low, high or middle rank, are filled by men
(and less often, women) who are not best qualified for them.
The one part of the public sector that remains somewhat insulated from
corruption and sycophancy is the sphere of science. The Indian
Institute of Science still produces research of quality, and the
Indian Space Research Organisation still executes the tasks assigned
to it with a degree of competence and professionalism. Otherwise, our
public institutions are in a state of atrophy and decay. This hurts
the poor far more than the rich, for they are dependent on the sarkari
iskool and the sarkari aspatal—no Doon School or Apollo Hospital for
them. Denied equality of opportunity, they are also denied the
benefits of redistributive policies, with a large chunk of the welfare
budget intended for their succour instead going into the hands of
politicians and contractors.
This brings us to Ambedkar's final warning, which was that "political
democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social
democracy". As he pointed out, "on the social plane, we have in India
a society based on the principle of graded inequality, which means
elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane,
we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as
against many who live in abject poverty". On January 26, 1950, by
adopting a democratic constitution, India upheld the principle of "one
man one vote and one vote one value". However, our society continued
to be deeply inequitous, "deny(ing) the principle of one man one
"How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?"
asked Ambedkar. "How long shall we continue to deny equality in our
social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will
do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove
this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who
suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political
democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up."
The statistics propping up our economic and political achievements
hide shocking inequalities we haven't yet set right.
The Indian Constitution recognised two groups that had historically
suffered most from inequality. These were Dalits and adivasis. The
chief spokesman for the tribal interest in the Constituent Assembly
was Jaipal Singh Munda, a man of character and flamboyance who
deserves to be more widely known today. He was a brilliant hockey
player—he captained the Indian team to victory in the 1928
Olympics—and a still more brilliant orator. When Nehru moved a
resolution in the Assembly proclaiming India a sovereign and
democratic republic, Jaipal made a stirring speech interpreting the
proclamation from his people's point of view. "As a jungli, as an
adibasi," said Jaipal, "I am not expected to understand the legal
intricacies of the resolution. But my common sense tells me that every
one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together.
Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily
treated, it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated,
neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley
civilisation, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is
the newcomers—most of you here are intruders as far as I am
concerned—it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the
Indus Valley to the jungle fastness.... The whole history of my people
is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the
non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and
yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your
word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of
independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one
would be neglected."
These hopes were to be falsified. For it is Jaipal's adivasis who have
gained least and lost most from six decades of electoral democracy. In
terms of access to education, healthcare and dignified employment,
they are even worse off than the Dalits. Meanwhile, millions of
adivasis have been thrown out of their homes and forests to make way
for dams, factories and mining projects intended for the producers and
consumers of urban India. Thus the "exploitation and dispossession"
have continued, to be answered by a fresh round of "rebellions and
disorder". It is surely no accident that the greatest gains made by
the Maoists in the past decade have been in the tribal districts of
central and eastern India.
The dynasts Indira and Rajiv, with Rao in the background
Apologists for the Maoists sometimes try to appropriate Ambedkar to
their side, on the grounds that Dalits and adivasis have no option but
armed struggle to resist and overcome their oppressors. But, as the
remarks quoted earlier in this essay make clear, Ambedkar abhorred
violence, rejecting it as a means of settling political disputes. In
fact, he even had little time for non-violent protest on Gandhian
lines. He was a constitutional democrat, who believed that arguments
between citizens had to be resolved through the means of the press,
the law courts and the legislature.
It was as a patriot and democrat that Ambedkar uttered those warnings
in his speech of November 1949. Recalling them 60 years later, one may
be inclined to despair. I think that Ambedkar himself would have
demanded that we renew and redeem the idea of India rather than
abandon it altogether. Vigilance rather than cynicism may be the
correct response to the crisis our state and society are currently
Let us begin by acknowledging that what we now confront is indeed a
crisis. Through the first half of the Noughties, there was much
careless talk about our imminent rise to superpower status. After the
recession, such talk receded, only to revive after the emphatic
victory of the United Progressive Alliance in the elections of 2009.
We now have a dynamic private sector, an energetic civil society.
It's the state that has been found to be wanting.
Those who claim that India is a "rising global power" offer two
statistics in their support—first, that, unlike China or Pakistan, we
have held 15 general elections in a row; second, that, unlike the
nations of Africa and Latin America, our growth rates are in the
region of 8 per cent and 9 per cent. Aldous Huxley remarked of the Taj
Mahal that marble conceals a multitude of sins. In the same manner,
the statistics purporting to capture the political and economic
achievements of India conceal, among other things, shocking
inequalities in wealth and living standards; a third-rate education
system and a fifth-rate healthcare system; a criminal justice system
on the verge of collapse; a serious and still growing left-wing
insurgency in central India; continuing tensions in the states of the
northeast and northwest; a spate of farmer suicides in the
countryside; rising crime rates in the cities; rapid and possibly
irreversible environmental degradation in both city and countryside; a
fragile neighbourhood (with Pakistan mired in sectarian conflict and
Sri Lanka and Nepal scarred by civil war); and more.
Arguably, the last time India faced a crisis of such proportions was
at its birth. When Mahatma Gandhi died, in January 1948, the nation
was confronted with religious rioting, food scarcities, a communist
insurrection, angry and homeless refugees, and recalcitrant princes
holding out for independent states of their own. If these (and other)
problems were tamed and transcended, it was largely because of the
visionary yet very focused leadership provided by the men and women
whom Gandhi had trained. These included Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal
Nehru and Maulana Azad at the centre; C. Rajagopalachari and B.G. Kher
in the states; and Mridula Sarabhai and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in
the domain of civil society. These names are but a sampling of the
thousands of Indians who, inspired by Gandhi, helped pick up the
pieces of a divided and desperate nation and put it back on the road
The document that finally marked the end of the nation's teething
troubles, and sign-posted its future, was of course the Constitution,
which came into effect on January 26, 1950. Remarkably, the man who
piloted this Constitution through the Constituent Assembly was himself
a lifelong opponent of the Congress. How and why Ambedkar was chosen
as the first law minister of the government of independent India
remains a mystery. It has been speculated that Gandhi instructed Nehru
and Patel to include Ambedkar in the cabinet, on the grounds that
freedom had come to all of India, not merely to Congressmen. This
seems in keeping with Gandhi's extraordinary combination of personal
generosity and political sagacity, whereby he was willing to overlook
Ambedkar's savage denunciations of himself in view of the younger
man's acknowledged abilities as a scholar and administrator.
India was united, and made democratic, by a "team of rivals" sinking
their differences to work together in a larger cause. The phrase in
quotes is borrowed from a book by an American historian, which deals
with how Abraham Lincoln worked with his political adversaries in
seeing the United States safely in and out of a bloody civil war. But
it applies with equal force to the circumstances of newly independent
India, when men and women of clashing temperaments and opposed
ideologies likewise came together in the interests of their nation.
Less equal A school in the backward Bundelkhand region of UP
Between 1947 and 1950, the task before India's political leadership
was to ensure the nation stayed together. Now, in 2010, we need not
fear any more that the nation will break up into many parts. However,
despite 60 years of electoral democracy, India remains a society riven
by hierarchy and inequality. The life chances of a woman are worse
than that of a man, of a villager worse than that of a city-dweller,
of a Dalit worse than that of a Brahmin, of an adivasi worse than that
of either a Dalit or a Brahmin.
Some of these hierarchies have their basis in deep historical
processes; others are of more recent origin. Gore Vidal once said of
his adopted homeland, Italy, that it combined the worst features of
capitalism and socialism. In some respects, contemporary India
combines the worst features of capitalism, socialism and feudalism.
Thus, the spurt in economic growth has widened the gulf between the
wealthy and the poor, this compounding the gulf between official and
citizen that was the legacy of state socialism, which itself
compounded the gulf between mental and manual labour that was the
legacy of the caste system.
Personal behaviour reflects these broader trends in social inequality.
The successful capitalist has contempt for those who do not earn as
much as him; so too the powerful bureaucrat or politician for those
who hold less power. On their part, the poor and the powerless tend to
be deferential; taking these asymmetries of privilege to be divine or
preordained, rather than particular creations of particular men
behaving in, as it were, less-than-democratic fashion.
Do we, in 2010, have leaders who can redeem the pledges of those who
framed our Constitution in 1950?
In that last speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar asked, "What
does social democracy mean?" He supplied this answer: "It means a way
of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the
principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and
fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They
form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the
other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.... Without equality,
liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality
without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity,
liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things."
For a democracy to function at somewhere near optimum potential, three
sectors have to simultaneously pull their weight. These are the state,
the private sector and civil society. In 1947, when the nation was
born, civil society was weak and the private sector risk-averse. The
centre held, and a democratic constitution came into being, only
because the energy and capability of the state compensated for the
limitations of the other two sectors. Now, 60 years later, we have a
dynamic private sector and an energetic civil society. It is the state
that is wanting.
In the 1990s, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh initiated a series of
economic reforms that unleashed a surge of creativity and productivity
in the private sector. Those reforms were both necessary as well as
overdue. However, they now need to be complemented by a second set of
reforms, aimed this time at making the government more productive and
efficient. For, the task of the private sector is merely to increase
the size of the cake. To make economic growth more equitable and
sustainable must largely be the responsibility of the state.
The first institution in urgent need of renewal is the Indian
political party. This must no longer be run as a family firm; rather,
it should be open to individuals who can make their way up the party
hierarchy on the basis of ability and ambition, rather than birth. The
Congress became a national party because of the patient work done in
nurturing state units by four generations of hard-working politicians.
The first generation consisted of, among others, Bal Gangadhar Tilak,
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal; the
second generation of M.K. Gandhi, C.R. Das, G.B. Pant, Maulana Azad,
etc; the third generation of Subhas Bose, T. Prakasam, Jawaharlal
Nehru and their colleagues; the fourth generation of K. Kamaraj, Y.B.
Chavan, S. Nijalingappa, Sucheta Kripalani and others.
Only one of the individuals named in the preceding paragraph was the
child of a politician. Nor was this experience peculiar to the
Congress. Those who built the dmk and the Akali Dal were likewise born
into homes unmarked by wealth or privilege. It is this silent and
often self-effacing work that forms the forgotten background to the
rise of the Nehru-Gandhis, the Badals and the Karunanidhis, who, in a
manner of speaking, have all thrown away the ladder that brought them
to the top.
Flag-bearers Nehru and members of the first Cabinet
Second, the civil services at both central and state levels need to be
freed from arbitrary political interference. Postings and length of
tenure must be decided on the basis of a person's capability and
performance rather than his caste affiliation or his proximity to an
MLA, MP or minister.
Third, this restoration of institutional autonomy must be extended to
other state sectors such as education. Politicians should no longer
decide who will head universities or research institutions; rather,
the process must be in the hands of the academicians themselves.
Fourth, there should be more lateral entry into government,
particularly (but not exclusively) at the higher levels. Professionals
from outside the state sector must be encouraged to join it. As things
stand, generalist services such as the IAS are assigned jobs for which
their background does not prepare them. Who is to say that an
experienced doctor or hospital administrator would not make a better
health secretary, or a senior lawyer a better law secretary, than
those who currently occupy these posts?
Fifth, our judicial process has to be made more transparent and
efficient. There must be a greater willingness, among politicians and
judges alike, to prosecute and send to jail those palpably guilty of
This list of required reforms is indicative rather than comprehensive.
But that the Indian state needs to be reformed and reinvented is
manifestly clear. The question is: do we, in the year 2010, have the
leaders who can finally redeem the pledges made by the framers of the
Constitution in 1950—leaders who can make India, in Ambedkar's terms,
a proper social democracy rather than a mere political democracy?
Some years ago, I wrote that while a democracy needs to be founded by
visionaries, in mid-career it can be led by mediocrities. I now think
that to have been a careless judgement. The times we live in, and the
expectations engendered by them, call for leadership that is rather
better than mediocre. The men and women who now rule India—whether
from the centre or in the states—seem concerned, above all, with
survival: the survival in his present post of an individual politican;
the survival at the apex of the organisation of a particular family;
the survival in government of a particular party. To plausibly and
successfully redeem the ideals of the republic, however, this shall
not be enough.
(The writer is the author of India after Gandhi. He may be contacted
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