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Democracy and Arenas of Conflict

G.K. Arora

By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Penguin, 2003, pp. 178, Rs. 195.00

Edited by Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty
Sage, Delhi, 2003, pp. 378, price not stated.


Know the past, to know the present;  reflect; reflect on the future, to change the present.                                   --A Chinese prescription Democracy and civil society are the inseparable twins of contemporary public discourse.  Ever since the Berlin Wall came down and the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and in parts of Latin America were overthrown, we have been told continuously and insistently the good things that are going to happen to the world due to the spread of democracy and ‘free markets’.   And where there is no democracy it has to be brought by force of arms, as in Iraq.  The key text of this post-ideological age, dedicated to pragmatism, is the therapeutic qualities of democracy.  It is the great remover of discontents.  The sub-text is the pathology of discrete democracies bound in space and time.        Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta handles, in a perky little volume in the Penguin series, Interrogating India, the Indian case that has many special features.  To describe and analyse what he calls “the romance of democracy” in India is no easy task.  One has to pick one’s way through the thick undergrowth of uncritical adulation and through the stony rubble of cynical disillusion, to get some degree of balance.  Mehta achieves a perspective that helps him, and us, in understanding the dilemmas posed by democratic practice in a highly stratified and hierarchical society.      He hails, as others before him have done, the creation of republican citizenship as a ‘historic event’, indeed a ‘rupture with the past’. Free exercise of political choice was indeed a new thing that would have momentous consequences. It was therefore a departure. But little else was. Deeply entrenched social inequalities had not been challenged. The colonial state with its overdeveloped superstructure remained intact. The tension between procedures of democracy, in themselves valuable and never to be underestimated in terms of their promise and potential of opening up hitherto undisclosed spaces of thought and action, and the substance of a democratic society and a democratic state with its emphasis on equality, freedom and dignity was, henceforth, to mark the unfolding story of our democratic experiment      What Mehta calls the ‘tumult of Indian politics’ is in a real sense an exciting process of discovery of who we are, what we are about, and where we are headed. It is a process at once profoundly confusing and unsettling. All certitudes, whether deriving from the influential ...

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