Tyranny of Public Democracy

Political Participation 

The IHDS data document a strong income and educational gradient in participation in public meetings but not in voting.

      Like the rest of the India, I am riveted to the political theatre being performed barely minutes from my office in New Delhi.  Anna Hazare, a Gandhian activist has commenced fasting in massive Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi to demand passage of his version of the Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill as opposed to a slightly different version of the Bill being drafted by the Parliamentary Committee in charge. In spite of the bungled attempts to stop this Hazare, the movement is rapidly gaining attention; the government appears paralyzed at best and oppressive at worst.  People are thronging the Ram Lila grounds to fan the frenzy of anti-corruption cries.  The media seem to thrive on this Indian version of Arab Spring and every little detail of this political drama is being played out in airwaves and newsprint.  

       To some observers this movement carries an echo of the Independence movement when Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strikes stymied the colonial government. No doubt the images of Anna Hazare and his followers find ways to tug at our heart strings, particularly for those of us raised on the romantic stories of freedom struggle of our parents’ generation; for others, public participation in democratic process carries its own high.  However, I am old enough to remember another movement that carried the same lure – the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat.  

      The Navnirman (reconstruction) movement started with college students protesting price rise in hostel food charges and ended with resignation of Chimanbhai Patel’s government in 1974. Like Anna Hazare, this movement also drew its inspirations from Jayprakash Narayan.  As Ghanshyam Shah and Asgar Ali Engineer have noted in their respective articles in the Economic and Political Weekly, its long-term influence is probably most notable in the growth of forces of Hindutva in Guajarat with most of Gujarat Jan Sangh workers, including Narendra Modi, getting their baptism in the Navnirman movement.  This was an outcome Jayprakash Narayan, one of the last Gandhians of India, could never have imagined.

     Is there something about the anatomy of public democracy that breeds these repressive forces?  The key probably lies in who forms the public that shapes this public democracy and whether the process through which nation is being asked to reform is in it self anti-democratic.  We know little about the composition of public that supports the Anna Hazare movement. But in general, political participation in public meetings is highly correlated with income, education and gender.  For example, the IHDS asked a question about attendance in a public meeting called by village panchayat or urban nagarpalika/ward committee. Among the least affluent rural households, 29% have at least one member who attended such meeting; among the most affluent rural households, 41% attended such meetings. Similar differences are seen in urban areas but at a much lower level, 8% vs. 16%.  Similar educational gradient also persists in attending public meetings. But when it comes to voting, these differences disappear, at least according to the IHDS data.  More than 90% of the rural households and 80% of the urban households report that at least someone in the household voted in the 2004 election.  In the crowd thronging Ram Lila grounds, one has to look very hard to spot women.  If a democratic drama is to be played out in public rather than through a ballot democracy, we must ask whether public democracy by its very nature excludes the marginalized communities of a nation.  

20-August 2011 7:30 PM

© Sonalde Desai 2012