A brief note on The Burden of Democracy by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s long essay The Burden of Democracy is not just about Indian democracy but is also significantly, a deep meditation about democracy itself. The essay, by avoiding, on one hand self-congratulation about procedural successes, and the outright cynicism or the disparaging attitude many of us have about its substantive nature, brings into focus particular features of the Indian democratic experience that have somewhat eluded careful analysis.

Though Indian democracy transformed Indians from “subjects to citizens”; that it gave millions of citizens to authorise authority; “that suffrage established sufferance”, the ‘centre’ of the book, however lies in the assertion that “the ideological persistence of social inequality on one hand, and a mistaken view of the state’s proper function and organisation on the other, has modified and impeded the workings of democracy and its effects in all kinds of perverse ways.” What this means is that deep seated divisions of caste and religion, have engendered a politics of non-reciprocity, where one doesn’t acknowledge another’s moral worth in society; where there are “competitive negotiations between groups, each competing for their interests, rather than a diffusion of democratic norms”. It has also led to the idea of advancement as something of a zero-sum game: ‘one can only advance at somebody else’s cost’, or ‘to put others down as a means to enhance yourself’. Therefore, as Mehta puts it ‘’all groups have acquired the right to compete, and air their demands, but could be completely indifferent to similar demands from other groups. This is why broad alliances of lower-caste groups have been relatively few and unstable.” One way such a sentiment surfaces in politics is that we have never had an “anti-caste politics”, but only an “anti upper-caste politics”.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta adds a fresh meaning to the idea of ‘’statism’’ in his analysis, that of the idea of the state as a means of social mobility. This very statism however, is attended by a deep fracture in that “ individuals and groups expend inordinate energy to colonise or capture government institutions in seeking to promote their interests over others; there is much activity in politics, but little of it directed to public purposes that all can share’’ such as the broad provision of public goods.

Though a sense of a “shared public philosophy” is necessary for a sense of reciprocity; for the diffusion of democratic norms; and for the existence of board-based collective action for the provision of public goods, and though public institutions are “required for civil purposes, to define a space for mutual acknowledgement, and reciprocity rather than domination and competition“. Mehta makes clear that the redemption and self-determination of marginalised groups lies not through the state, but the market. The entrepreneurial and commercial energy that economic growth generates is key not only to economic but social advancement as well. However, distressingly, economic growth or the market has not received much electoral appeal or political currency as the redistributive consequences of the market have not been very clear, nor have they received intellectual traction.

To conclude, it is important to recognise that “there are some things states are particularly bad at, but also recognising that we will be impoverished unless all enjoy the minimum basis for social self-respect and acknowledge each other through projects we hold in common.”

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)


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