India at 65 is no tidy democracy. It has its share of post-modern satyagrahis who seek to simplify issues and define or distort policy through street power. Yet, the Euro Zone’s more sanitised form of democracy is not working too well either.

Sixty five years ago, Mahatma Gandhi led India to freedom by turning a personal philosophy of voluntary abstention into a mass movement of non-cooperation. Last week, Baba Ramdev, television-sired yogi with a flourishing industrial enterprise, began a fast hoping to end corruption through personal abstinence.

Where Gandhiji asked Indians to change their lifestyles (through satyagraha) for freedom from an oppressive culture, Baba Ramdev, like Anna Hazare, wants to use the spectacle of personalised satyagraha to reform individual politicians. India’s most valuable gift to the history of emancipatory struggles, non-violent mass non-cooperation has become a spectacle of heroes and villains before an audience cheering from their drawing rooms and cocktail bars.

The metaphors raised by the “fight”, or satyagraha against corruption really go beyond distorting mankind’s most unique experiment for social change ever: They represent the illusion of change and the widespread acceptance of its emancipatory power.

In part, the fantasy of change in the domain of the political class has emerged because of television and its powerful depiction on events as personalised anecdotes.

For the electronic medium, social or economic issues have to be embedded in and mediated through personalities. Just as India’s economic power is now symbolised by captains of industry — and the younger they are, the better — so also social change has to be understood as the struggle by individuals against persons resisting them.

In the process, the illusion of change goes through another morphing and becomes trivia in the sense that Neil Postman in his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves To Death defined it: Issues are demonised or valorised.

The bright side of trivia

Yet, the trivialisation of issues, for instance corruption, narrowly defined as an affliction in certain UPA ministers, has had an impact whose ramifications cannot be captured by television.

What Team Anna and Baba Ramdev, self-anointed leaders of an assumed following may have succeeded in, is in pushing back the envelope of democracy itself by getting leaders to accept a singular feature of democratic rule: That it is always in the making.

What the post-modern satyagrahis have done is to show that an electoral victory does not automatically invest a party with the attributes of good conduct or are the extant rules of governance always sufficient to ensure fair behaviour.

In this sense, the personality-driven fasts against corruption, much as they embarrass the Government, contribute to the expansion of “government-by-discussion”, a phrase that Amartya Sen in his recent analyses of Europe’s ills attributes to Walter Bagehot (The New Republic issue, August 23, 2012).

What the hoop-la raised by Baba Ramdev and the self-anointed leaders of virtue, Team Anna, have done, is to add value to a uniquely Indian variant of democracy: Neither representative in the sense Edmund Burke meant it when he declared government and legislation to be a matter of “reason and judgment and not inclination” of the electorate, nor participatory of Greek antiquity, but an amalgam of both.

Street-wise democracy

This unique blend with stronger tastes of the latter has been strikingly evident in mass protests against price rise, devaluation of the rupee, Walmart, the Dunkel Draft, all with the intent of steering the government into refurbishing policies and actions that are often termed “populist.”

In Western democracies, with exceptions such as the Civil Rights movement (inspired by satyagraha), the Burkean notion of democracy has deepened responsible governance.

A citizenry as vociferous and as resilient as the “argumentative Indian” provides an alternative model of a democracy as “government by discussion” for the furtherance of the “public interest.”

On its 65th birth anniversary, what can India offer the world? Policy players get seduced by the idea, touted routinely by experts, of a “new world order”, authored by the second fastest growing economy. But most offerings are caricatures of existing and once-powerful mechanisms, such as the G-7 (now bloated to G-20 and made completely ineffective) or the BRICS, an illusion of greatness through an ill-matched solidarity of emergent economies.

At 65, a young age by any reckoning of nationhood, could India not offer the weary West a fantasy of greatness defined in purely material-economic terms: High GDP, skilled workforce, a high-spending middle-class, a stout loyalty to the English language and Bollywood?

But can the fantasy hide fractured growth, poverty, malnutrition, urban chaos, environment degradation, declining public services, and a brutally competitive ethos taking a toll of the very young (rising suicides)?

What can we offer the Western world but a sad reflection of its worst excesses?

This is it

Yet, behind the tattered illusions lies a more profound truth that policymakers and the media have ignored. On India’s 65th birthday, it might be worth recounting at least one of them, particularly as Europe and America face up to recession or weak recovery with notions of austerity and spending cuts dictated by central bankers and Republicans.

What India should showcase is its practice of democracy, or to put it differently, how its efforts to make governments follow the rules or make new ones to help them remember the idea of “public interest”.

Amartya Sen makes a persuasive case for the restoration of public discussion and interest in the Euro Zone, which is forcing austerity down its own throat.

Perhaps the Indian variant of what Bagehot had in mind, “government by discussion” might appear fairly anarchic to the tidy European mind, but then, Europe is becoming untidy itself with growing restlessness on its southern borders.

Greeting India on its 65th birthday with a new pair of lenses might prove instructive for the Euro Zone in more ways than one.

(This article was published on August 13, 2012)
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