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Towards oligarchy

Print edition : Apr 08, 2011 T+T-
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.-RANJEET KUMAR

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.-RANJEET KUMAR

The democratic process today is more about securing the interests, political and economic, of the power elite than about representing the people's will.

MANY in India have had, for many years now, an uneasy feeling that democracy, as generally understood, sits uneasily among the people of this country. India has large and sometimes articulate political parties and it has had leaders totally committed to the concept of democracy, which is also true. There was Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and others who believed in the concept of democracy as the only one that would keep the country together and take it forward.

Like true democrats they believed that dissent was an essential part of democracy, and that the country would only be enriched by debate and discussion, even by agitation if that became necessary. Their belief was complemented by their direct contact with the people; the trust that people had in them made it possible for them to persuade them to accept, enthusiastically, the beliefs and ideas they gave them.

But when such leaders and people are not there any more, what happens to the parties and institutions they have built and nurtured? One facile answer is that political argument gets stronger and power shifts from one group to another when elections are held. In other words, the people decide who will have the responsibility to manage the country, removing those whom they consider incapable and bringing in those they think can do the job. This is very convenient and comforting. It is also totally fictitious.

It is true that political argument does get stronger, more so because of the increasingly watchful media, of which most political groups have become wary, even fearful, and not without reason. The fiction lies in the belief that the people remove those who do not perform and bring in those who they think can perform.

First, the concept of people is simplistic; the vast numbers of individuals in the country are an infinitely complex entity consisting of a vast number of groups and sub-groups. This enormous mass of individuals does not come together and decide anything; that is not what happens, not at all. What happens is that a strategy aimed at finding acceptance with groups of individuals, in some cases possibly fortuitously, works or works better than the strategy of another group. In the 2009 general elections, the strategy of what was called the Third Front did not work; most individuals did not trust it. In a muddle of strategies, the United Progressive Alliance got through but not because it had planned to do so. It had, of course, tried to win, but its plans were wide off the mark. When it won it must have been as surprised as anyone else. On the other hand, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) had a strategy that he had worked on for years to give people the kind of development and security they had been yearning for and his victory was no surprise, except perhaps to his opponents, and their surprise was more at the magnitude of his success than at the victory itself. It made their strategies and plans look comic in comparison.

Nitish Kumar is an exception, and a phenomenon confined to Bihar. At the national level, and in most other States, the structure of democracy is being subjected to forces that may well change it completely over time. To understand that one has, perhaps, to take a step back and look at what the process is about today.

It is not about representing the people's will. It is about control and power. Our so-called democracy is defined not by the existence of dissent and opposition activity but by the nature of the power wielded. It is monarchical and meant to secure the interests, political and economic, of the ruling group, whichever it is. And this is done by ensuring that power remains with an elite group preferably the family, but also those who are close to it and share the same backgrounds. One can see it today in what many refer to as the First Family in the Congress; Sonia Gandhi is clearly grooming her son, Rahul Gandhi, to be the next Prime Minister, and should he not marry and have children, then there is her daughter, with two children who are doubtless being groomed as future Prime Ministers or party leaders. But they are not by any means the only family. Look at the number of sons and daughters now who are inducted into the corridors of power: Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Supriya Sule, even Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneswar who is what he is because he is Biju Patnaik's son, and a whole host of others whom media naively call the Young Turks. The original Young Turks were not just young; they had come to prominence because of their abilities, not because of who their father or mother was.

Inevitably, the elements of power are being chivvied towards specific families, which will then determine who will stand for elections for their parties, and thus consolidate their own position, securing it for their generation and the generations to follow. Increasingly, their contact with the people has become more and more distant; the people get to be called the masses who have to be manoeuvred by skilled managers (devotees of the families, naturally).

It is not a phenomenon confined to the Congress party; it is as much in evidence in the opposition parties such as the Samajwadi Party and others. And where the factor of unease comes in is in what appears to be an inevitable slide towards oligarchy, where an elite takes over power political and economic. It is economic, too, of course. All the big corporate giants are busy grooming their sons and daughters to take their place among the power elite; Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani are only one instance of this. Even the much-revered Tata group is reportedly looking for a Tata to head it once Ratan Tata leaves; Rahul Bajaj has already inducted his son into his empire, so has Vijaya Mallya.

The German sociologist Robert Michels developed a concept that is common knowledge now the iron law of oligarchy. He says, in effect, that democratic institutions, both political and economic, must inevitably transform themselves into oligarchic entities as the ruling elite strives to keep power and control. The people can never rule; it simply does not happen. He wrote:

It is nonetheless true that social wealth cannot be satisfactorily administered in any other manner than by the creation of an extensive bureaucracy. In this way we are led by an inevitable logic to the flat denial of the possibility of a state without classes. The administration of an immeasurably large capital, above all when this capital is collective property, confers upon the administrator influence at least equal to that possessed by the private owner of capital. Consequently the critics in advance of the Marxist social order ask whether the instinct which today leads the members of the possessing classes to transmit to their children the wealth which they (the parents) have amassed, will not exist also in the administrators of the public wealth of the socialist state, and whether these administrators will not utilise their immense influence in order to secure for their children the succession to the offices which they themselves hold . (Robert Michels; Political Parties - A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies on Modern Democracy; London, 1916. Reproduced and preserved in the library of the University of Virginia.)

It seems almost natural to us; a large number of us take instinctively to servitude. It will not do to point to the existence of the opposition. Michels argues, very persuasively, that the opposition and the ruling group are actually one when it comes to the formation of the elite structure that will rule. The concern that this rule be perpetuated is a shared one; all that changes is which part of the elite group gets to rule.

One can only hope that this is not what we have in store for us, that we do produce some leaders from outside the elite families who, like Nitish Kumar in Bihar, will lead parties with clear concepts of development.