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Sites of Contestation

Sukumar Muraleedharan

By Christophe Jaffrelot
Hurst & Co, London, 2011, pp. xxxii + 802, price not stated


India’s robust sense of accomplishment at being a functioning democracy amid much political chaos has tended in recent times to waver ever so slightly. The rosy flush of optimism that came with the spurt in economic growth over the early years of the century has faded and there is a deeper sense of worry over the ability of the Indian political process to accommodate all the interests that are in contention within. The Anna Hazare moment was perhaps an elite rebellion against the noise and bustle that have made Indian democracy an intensely competitive, but ultimately inclusive and accommodative process. Beyond the popular endorsement conferred by the electoral process, the Anna Hazare movement calls out for a new touchstone of political legitimacy, based on individual virtue. Another line of criticism holds that Indian democracy has failed to assimilate the liberal ethos, rendering politics a brutally competitive game where clans and ethnic groups battle for control over scarce resources. Far from being exercised for the good of all, political power in turn, becomes a means of pre-empting the use of public resources for cultivating patronage within narrow networks of kinship and community. What then is missing in India’s democratic practice? What is it that makes even the most rigorous adherence to procedure, an inadequate guarantee of best results and a system that works for all? Some of the possible hazards were seen by early pathfinders of the Indian democratic experiment, such as B.R. Ambedkar, as inherent in a social and economic milieu of deeply imbedded disparities. It was a state of inequality that a system of universal franchise could not correct, without specific guarantees for those at its lower end. It took a number of special provisions for the system of ‘one man, one vote’ to be translated in practice into ‘one man, one value’. And the criteria on which these special provisions were to be made were those of identity. Christophe Jaffrelot, the French scholar whose prolific work on Indian politics has made him a constantly cited source, assembles his work over roughly two decades between the covers of this book. This is a diverse collection that touches upon themes that Jaffrelot has addressed separately in books published over the years. The unifying themes are summed up in the title. Religion and caste are the two markers of sub-national identity that have had a bearing on politics ...

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