Democracy from below

Print edition : September 25, 2020
A comprehensive book, based on extensive fieldwork, that explores the complex relationships which India’s poor have with democracy and its institutions.

THE concept of democracy and its modern practices has received considerable critical attention for various reasons ranging from its failure to make any decisive dent in poverty or inequality to the surprising electoral success of populist leaders, particularly from the right wing, in different parts of the world.

Philosophers, such as A.C. Grayling in Democracy and Its Crisis (Oneworld, 2018), and theorists, such as Pierre Rosanvallon in Good Government: Democracy Beyond Elections (Harvard University Press, 2018), have addressed these issues and raised concerns about the limits of elections, the inherent threat of populism, demagoguery and rhetoric, and so on. Indrajit Roy’s book does not fall under the above category. Instead, it is an attempt to explore the complex relationships that the poor have with democracy and its institutions.

Just as the subaltern method aims to write history from below, this approach to study democracy from below could offer fresh insights into the operational dimension of democracy.

The book is based on extensive fieldwork Roy undertook as a doctoral student at Oxford and subsequently fine-tuned while he taught at the University of York. It tells a comprehensive story of democracy. The idea of people, which is at the heart of democracy, is neither homogeneous nor identical, and hence their skills and ways of negotiation also vary from domain to domain.

The author has been able to capture the variations of those negotiations while seeking to engage with prominent works of a similar genre from other regions such as Africa and Latin America, bringing a richness to the narrative that is often lacking in writings on India these days.

As India embarked on a nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic in March and millions found themselves on the streets, a photograph of a poor migrant labourer who was unable to travel from Delhi to his home in Begusarai in Bihar caught the nation’s attention. Rampukar Pandit, his face contorted in anguish as he spoke to his wife over the phone about his son who was unwell (and who died shortly after), was quoted in The Guardian dated May 19 as saying: “I am a nobody. I’m like an ant, my life does not matter.” A poor Indian describing himself as an ant is not an exception. This description of a life without any worth or rights is a reflection of how a poor person looks at democracy, and it is a crucial research question.

The key question in the book is: What does it mean to live in a democracy for the world’s billion-plus poor people, who simultaneously confront deprivations and disparities? According to the author, poor people neither seek assimilation into the universalistic premises of democracy nor aim to perpetuate their differences. The only way to explain this claim, the author suggests, is to examine their multifaceted negotiations with democracy. These negotiations by India’s poor take place with bureaucrats, politicians, employers and with one another, in a horizontal as well as a vertical manner.

To use the author’s phrase, these are “heterogeneous negotiations”, a combination of cooperation and conflict, and these do not always fall within the formal network or official institutions. These negotiations have their own life cycle, which is beneath and beyond the electoral politics in most cases.

Agonistic negotiations

In some ways, this signals the limits of the authority of elected representatives. The author clarifies his finding by saying that “poor people’s politics is a politics of agonistic negotiations”. He further argues that we need to make sense of “political spaces” created by the active interaction between social relations of power and opportunity structures in order to make sense of poor people’s politics. In a nutshell, political spaces and agonistic negotiations are new conceptual tools that the author presents to us to make sense of democracy from below.

Chapters 2 and 3 constitute the crucial part of the book. The critical narrative is built up based on the author’s ethnographic approach used in his interviews with various categories of poor people in eastern India, particularly in West Bengal and Bihar.

While Chapter 2 presents the “formal, participatory and social dimension of India’s democracy”, Chapter 3 deals with the “social relations of power within which people in the four fieldwork localities” and gives the reader an insight into collaborations and conflicts between members of different social classes. Similar scholarly works, such as Andre Beteille’s doctoral thesis (under the supervision of M.N. Srinivas) titled Caste, Class and Power; the volumes Dominance and State Power in Modern India edited by Francine Frankel and M.S.A. Rao; and Atul Kohli’s work on state and poverty, and later on India’s crisis of governability, have all generated a great deal of interest among scholars of political sociology in the past. Roy’s research is more specific and raises direct theoretical questions compared with these other works of political economy and political sociology. There is something refreshing about its realisation that there is a need to look at democracy from the point of view of the poor and not the political elite. This also gives us a better sense of the nature and character of democracy.

Another of the book’s key concepts is political space. According to the author, the dynamic interaction of political opportunity structures and the social relations of power determines political space.

Chapter 7 presents an interesting insight into various forms of negotiation and struggle within the social relations of power. It also reflects on the interaction of modernity and tradition. The issue over a temple in the village of Sargana is discussed in detail, and one witnesses an interesting power struggle unfold among the Rajput trustees, rich farmers, and the labouring poor, solidifying what the author calls a “Backward-forward split that characterised Sargana’s political place.”

There are interesting life stories, through which a portrait of life in a democracy emerges. The author writes of “people such as Shamsul Alam Majhuli Moholi, Shekhar Shil, and Jamuni Rishi for whom democracy provides unprecedented opportunities to advance their social claims but does not eliminate the social and economic inequalities within which they are embedded”. In the same vein, he describes: “People such as Fatema Bewa, Marangmayee Hembrom, Shanichar Rishi and Mansoor Ali are democrats without necessarily subscribing to liberal values that sanctify individualism, private property, and rule of law.”

It is important to take note of the place of this research in the current juncture. If the rise of Hindutva politics has created a new context of majoritarianism, the question is whether India’s poor will find themselves placed differently in their negotiation owing to their religious identity. My sense is the fieldwork largely recognises some sort of secular political terrain while examining the negotiation, or at least has not factored Hindu majoritarianism in a manner that the present time demands. Bihar and West Bengal are the next destinations of the growing experiment that will reshape the relationship of India’s poor with democracy, making the secular social fabric even more vulnerable.

Harold Laski wrote in a fresh Introduction to his famous work A Grammar of Politics that we need the state because there would be anarchy without the state. India’s recent experience, however, tells us there can be anarchy even with the state. The COVID-19 crisis has also revealed a new face of the Indian state, its ruthless indifference towards the poor of all religions, a secular indifference that would even recast the colonial state in a better light.

Scholars of Indian democracy and comparative politics who are interested in exploring such questions through fieldwork will find this book handy. This is indeed an important contribution to the study of democracy and the relationships and challenges of India’s poor. Students who are interested in learning how ethnographic research helps in the study of political economy will also find it a valuable guide for their research.

Dr Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and is the author of the forthcoming book Explaining the Muslim Mind.

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