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Anti-majoritarian, pro-globalisation

Print edition : Oct 21, 2005 T+T-

Deepening Democracy - Challenges of Governance and Globalization in India by Madhu Purnima Kishwar; Oxford University Press, 2005; pages 334, Rs.595.

IN 2001, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, an activist and academic, published in Manushi, a periodical from New Delhi, two articles, one dealing with the working conditions of rickshaw-pullers in the capital and the other about street vendors whom she had made a film on in 1995. Quite rightly, the two articles received a great deal of attention and comments. These two articles are reproduced in this volume along with other pieces by the author published in the same periodical and elsewhere in the 1990s. There are, altogether, 14 pieces and a 60-page introduction in the volume.

Many of the chapters in the book bear upon the chosen title, Deepening Democracy, and so the focus of this review will also be the same theme. A problem with democracy, especially where the electoral processes have been introduced for the first time, is that it gets identified with numerical strength. But, of course, democracy is not about numbers, but about demos, that is, people. And, if it is concerned with people, ideally it must be about all the people in a given country or whatever other unit that is being dealt with. If numerical strength is ascertained, it is done as a means to arrive at decisions, but counting heads or hands is not the only procedure to make decisions. Where there are only a few people (as in a family, for instance, or in small organisations), it is often possible to elicit the views of all members and arrive at a decision by consensus. In larger groups this may not always be feasible. However, and this is the crucial point, even in a large group of people such as a country, it is wrong to imagine that all decisions are made on the basis of numerical strength. Just one example would suffice to drive home this point. A legislative body of representatives elected on the basis of numerical strength may unanimously arrive at a decision. But a single judge may be able to nullify it backed by laws that, once laid down, do not function on the basis of numerical strength.

Chapter 13 in the volume, with the title "Majoritarianism versus Minoritarianism" deals with the role of numbers in a democracy. A danger of identifying democracy with numbers is that it will tend to go beyond their permissible role as a decision-making procedure. When numbers are used as a means to make decisions and where decisions are made on numerical strength (it may be noted that numbers do not lay down this principle) it will divide the group into those who are in the majority and those in the minority. But that decision pertains only to the one issue about which a decision is made. Majoritarianism arises when one or more non-numerical factors (such as religion and language) are used to bring about a lasting and irrevocable division of people into those who "belong" to the majority and those who, on that basis, become the minority.

Such petrification of the "majority" and the "minority", though common in many cases, including in our country, is a denial of democracy because quite arbitrarily and unreasonably all other issues (education, health, housing) come to be viewed from perspectives not particularly related to them, but inevitably imposed on them. Says the author: "In our modern age of nationalism we have thus come to confuse a simplified and primitive notion of majority vote with the deadly notion of majority rule based not on issues but rather on `objective' characteristics of a majority of individuals in the nation, such as skin colour, language, cultural traits, ancestry, religion, and other markers that have little to do with issues the people living in the territory need to decide among themselves" (page 273).

Having thus established the foundational error of constituting permanent majorities and minorities in a large collectivity such as a nation, the author goes on to evaluate the majoritarianism that the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been trying to perpetuate, using Hindutva as the criterion. Noting that "in actual fact India is a country of minorities", she goes on to say: "In certain ways the Sangh Parivar leadership perceive themselves not as the representatives of the overwhelming majority their rhetoric would indicate, but rather as a besieged political minority trying to consolidate a recalcitrant vote bank of an incredibly heterogeneous group of ethnic and religious identities into a united vote bank" (page 276).

She is no less critical of Muslim minoritarianism, defining minoritarianism as "the tendency of a minority to want an unconditional veto on all issues it considers important" (page 290) and giving instances that portray Muslims as an intolerant community that considers doctrines more important than the well-being of even the members of that community, particularly its women members.

In the long run, attempts to mobilise strength on the basis of majoritarianism or minoritarianism are self-defeating because people have multiple identities and these will assert themselves depending on circumstances. Thus, regional loyalties and economic considerations can lead to different combinations. In the process those who consider themselves as being in the majority may surprisingly find themselves to be in the minority. The specific case of the history of Punjab where religious, regional and economic issues led to various regroupings of the people of the State and the impact of these changes on the politics of the State that the author brings out make interesting and informative reading.

Those who swear by numbers do so only when it is convenient for them. If Indian society is grouped on caste basis, it can be seen that those who are in power and enjoy privileges are the upper-caste minority and they do all they can to perpetuate the situation. Chapters 11 and 12 are appraisals of the reservation policy from this perspective. Though these were written in the immediate aftermath of the decision of the V.P. Singh government to accept the recommendations of the Mandal Commission favouring caste-based reservation and are thus dated, the arguments are quite logical. Urging those engaged in the polemical "for and against" debate to go beyond that approach, the author makes a strong case for the protection and encouragement of those sections of society whose legitimate rights were neglected for many centuries.

Similar are the two 2001 papers referred to earlier and appearing as Chapters 1 and 2 where the common theme is the manner in which a small minority of less than 7 per cent of the workforce constituting the organised sector, and in particular the members of the bureaucracy, systematically make it difficult for the vast majority of unorganised workers even to earn a meagre livelihood.

In papers discussed so far and a few others, the author emerges as a champion of human rights and makes out a case for the deepening of Indian democracy in terms of the legitimate needs and basic rights of all its citizens.

There are some more pieces in the volume somewhat different in terms of themes and treatment. In Chapter 8 the author not only expresses her personal preference for Indian toilets, but depicts western-type toilets located within houses as part of "the evil ways of the West" and as symbolic "imperial thrones of Brown Sahibs". Chapter 9 is an equally pungent treatment of the continuing role of English as a medium of instruction and communication.

Two other themes that run through the volume are the role of government (against) and the post-1991 economic reforms (for). The government (sometimes even the state) gets identified with the bureaucracy. And the elitism, authoritarianism, arbitrariness and corruption of the bureaucracy are not only vehemently criticised but treated with a vein of sarcasm. "A government job in our country does not involve any responsibility to work because such a job is treated as property. It gives you an official licence to extort money, to grab public property, to embezzle public funds. In addition, you get a life-long salary and even a pension after you retire for having done nothing except moving files at a snail's pace, or block their movement, harass the public, hide information from the people, and devise ways to siphon off public funds" (pages 127-8). If such is the case with government employees, how can the government be any better, seems to be the argument.

And if governments are against people, and if "economic reforms" reduce the role and power of governments, one must be "for" reforms. The support for reforms is strengthened when those who oppose them are perceived as leftists, who are addicted to Stalinist control of the economy, and non-governmental organisations, who "want global network for themselves but insist that the rest of us must live like frogs in a well"(page 10). A major part of the long `Introduction' and some sections of the book are tirades against these groups whom the author has named the Anti-Globalisation Brigade (AGB). Ironically, the author's opposition to the decision of the Government of India to import about three million tonnes of wheat in 1992 (Chapter 3) makes her appear as part of the AGB. But so intense is the AGB bashing in the volume that it is featured as the main contribution of the book in advance praise for Deepening Democracy quoted on the back cover page: "Much damage has been done to Indian economic policymaking by bleeding hearts one manifestation being what she [the author] calls the Anti-Globalisation Brigade (AGB). The volume argues that without the government's heavy hand, the lot of the poor would have been better."

The author, of course, has the right to decide what she will write on and how, and the publishers have the freedom to decide what will go into a collection of essays. But the reviewer has the responsibility to point out to the readers that pieces in the collection are of uneven quality.