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On Democratic Incompleteness


Harish Khare

CHALLENGES TO DEMOCRACY IN INDIA
Edited by Rajesh M. Basrur
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 299, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXIII NUMBER 3 MARCH 2009

Challenges to Democracy in India is a collection of presentations made by some public intellectuals at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai between November 2005 and February 2007. Normally such an exercise could end up like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant, but surprisingly there is a certain vibrant convergence among most of the arguments: democracy has worked well in a rather formal sense but that is not enough, the culture and practices of democracy need to be deepened, and we need to move beyond formal, procedural democracy towards a more substantive arrangement that would ensure an inclusive and egalitarian social order.   The most thoughtful of the essays by Neera Chandhoke ‘Deepening the Culture of Democracy in India’, comes at the very end, and if read in tandem with Zoya Hasan’s ‘Indian Democracy and Social Inequalities’ and Suhas Palshikar’s ‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side . . . Are We Becoming a Majoritarian Society?’, the nature of incompleteness of Indian democracy becomes somewhat discernible. Persistence of large-scale poverty, oppression and discrimination against lower caste and religious minorities can invite only one assessment: ‘the democratic project necessarily remains incomplete’.   We have all the trappings of a formal or political democracy, which no doubt is essential but not sufficient. Neera Chandhoke writes: ‘For democracy is much more than a system whereby citizens elect and dismiss their representatives. Democracy is about assuring freedom and equality for all citizens in their everyday life so that they can develop their capacities. Or that the project of formal democracy has to be extended into the economic, the social, the cultural, and the domestic sphere all of which are marked by inequality and unfreedom. Only a commitment to the furtherance of this particular project deepens both democracy and the democratic political culture’.   Both Chandhoke and Hasan talk of democracy’s ‘unfinished agenda’, and of ‘the huge inequalities of resources’. Going by all social indicators, economic deprivation and poverty remain the fate of the vast majority of the Indian population. This, naturally, produces a painful paradox at the very heart of the democratic arrangement. What is more, as Hasan points out increasingly, ‘democratic processes have much less control over the policy decisions that are so critical in the making of the people’s social and material lives’.   And all this mostly because ‘a substantial section of the elites and middle classes now see their interests as more closely tied ...


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