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Democracy: A Work in Progress?

Radha Kumar

Edited by Partha Chatterjee  and Ira Katznelson
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 310, Rs.750.00


It is pleasantly fortuitous to be able to review a book on democracy on the 65th anniversary of India’s Independence, especially as the India chapters of this book deal with the challenges our democracy has faced since the birth of the Republic. These challenges have become acute today, with the State and its institutions facing unanticipated and largely unprecedented challenges from a plethora of social and political quarters. Never before have the weaknesses of our State structure and machinery appeared in so pitiless and intolerable a light. Indeed, a question on most lips is: Are we facing breakdown or is this an enormously difficult transition from the ‘basic democracy’ phase to a functioning democratic one? To what extent does Anxieties offer insights into our present situation? This was not, of course, the goal of the volume, and so many of the key issues being raised today—such as the nature of Indian federalism, corruption and accountability, diversity and integration, security and globalization—are not discussed or are dealt with only tangentially, as in Sudipto Kaviraj’s chapter on ‘The Empire of Democracy’. The core theme of the book is to examine the relationship between democracy, equality and social justice, as posited by Alexis de Tocqueville, the great nineteenth century analyst, whose work laid the foundations for democratic State development. De Tocqueville’s observations were based on his studies of France and the US, so the authors of the US chapters can review the State of their democracy by direct reference to what de Tocqueville said over a century and half ago. This is not an option for the authors of the India chapters, as they ruefully acknowledge; instead, they apply core principles as selected by de Tocqueville to reflect on Indian democracy, which most of them rightly see as a work in progress. Intriguingly, caste forms a common thread through the India chapters. Clearly, the authors and editors agree that the most critical reflection on theories of democracy comes from a focus on the relations between caste and the Indian democratic State. I cannot disagree: as they say, the caste hierarchy’s adaptation to what should be equalizing institutions is a persistent structural anomaly that must cause severe disquiet to both theorists and practitioners of democracy in India. The Indian State has of course introduced measures to weaken caste hierarchies and provide cross cutting institutions for equalization through affirmative ...

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