Democracy and the software that runs it

Rajeev Kadambi | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 04, 2020

Ballot race: The Modi years, observes Yadav, have transformed India into an election-only democracy   -  ISTOCK.COM

Indian democracy should be understood not through Western models but shared symbols and popular beliefs, argues Yogendra Yadav in a new book

‘The Idea of India’ is synonymous with the founders adopting representative democracy. As a newly decolonised nation, India ambitiously embarked on this experiment despite widespread poverty and low socio-economic indicators. Western theories of democracy were preoccupied with its biases that related democracy to economic development, according to which India could not remain democratic for long. Unlike their Western counterparts, Indian liberal commentators have overwhelmingly argued that India has successfully defied Western democratic theory. Yet their explanations of democratic representation, especially the political churning after Mandal, Mandir, and Market, are confined to handing out report cards in binaries of success and failure — which suggest a hidden yardstick from where all evaluations emanate — along the ever-receding path of ‘progress’.

Making Sense of Indian Democracy: Theory in Practice\ Yogendra Yadav\ Permanent Black\ Non-fiction\ ₹995


It is at these crossroads that political actor and former psephologist Yogendra Yadav’s book diagnoses shortcomings in received accounts of Indian democracy, which continue ‘as if we know what democracy is’ and proceed to validate modular templates. Offering an alternative, this book attempts a clearing by understanding democratic representation through thick descriptions of practice. Terming it the “creolisation” or “vernacularization” of Indian politics, the author posits that the very idea of democracy has to be freshly theorised from the specificity of the Indian experience. He offers a carefully nuanced explanation of popular political agency and its interrelations with social and historical forces.

The book comprises essays on a variety of themes and makes two interrelated arguments. First, Indian democracy should be understood through shared symbols, popular beliefs, values, and idioms in practice, rather than cognitive models derived from Western political science. The author demarcates what he calls the “hardware” approach, which essentially assumes a set of institutional checklists based on which the model can simply be transplanted and installed anywhere. In contrast, he emphasises a “software” approach, according to which democracy is a common game in which people participate by using a shared language, thus modifying the formal rules in its enactment on the ground. Seen from this prism, Indian elections are distinct because they act as a hinge, where the formal legal and constitutional rules interact with the messy world of popular reality.

Second, peoples’ agency is activated within a socio-historical process that makes democratic outcomes highly contingent, with no single script or starting point. There can be no grand theories, only context-sensitive analysis of political change. The implications of these arguments are irresistible as they explain major changes from the interplays between voters’ intentions and social dynamics.

Indian politics has been through four major democratic moments: The Congress system; the post-Congress phase from 1967; the Mandal, Mandir and Market phase; and the present dispensation. A possible partial argument emerging from this work is to analyse the workings of democracy in the light of how rudiments of each successive phase are sown from an earlier epoch. For example, the first two decades insulated politics from the social and cultural, which led to relatively autonomous institutions but hegemonic balance in favour of upper classes. Later, democratic upsurge opened political possibilities, but this also led to a condition of politics steering the social and cultural, and institutions that once excluded the social, now surrendered to its political weight. Yadav’s argument alluding to the importance of (historical) evolutions is an astounding contribution and awaits further unravelling.

The Modi years have transformed India into an election-only democracy. This fits with what Yadav highlights as a plebiscitary mode of politics that atrophies democracy. The current restructuring of the institutional and social fabric prompts him to refer to this phase as the onset of a “second republic”. The author astutely points out that a social contract can be renewed whenever there is such a conflation between people and the leader. But is history made by an individual or is it determined by circumstances? Taking up a Machiavellian reading of the contemporary, he avers that the root of the crisis is located somewhere in between. While social and historical development is traceable to various structural changes in the Indian polity, it required a skilful leader to seize the opportunity.

He explains the popularity and dominance of Modi through yet another original formulation — “democracy capture”. It refers to a paradoxical condition where democracy is itself the means to gain legitimacy as well as to subvert its substantive content. In the end, Yadav penetratingly sketches three tentative directions in which India can move from here.

Making Sense of Indian Democracy should rank among the most incisive reflections on Indian democracy. Yadav astutely combines theoretical sophistication and a practitioner’s account, meant not simply to be digested by social scientists but also the discerning layperson who wishes for something more than the readily packaged narratives told through overly simplistic plot lines and borrowed experiences. The diagnostic tone of analysis is remarkably free of any abstraction and moralism. Yadav’s framework sees democracy as a practice constituted by performative acts of people encased within a fluid social and historical field. He has given a fundamental insight redefining Indian political studies, and understanding the ‘idea of India’ beyond the chorus of optimism versus pessimism.

Rajeev Kadambi teaches political theory and ethics at OP Jindal Global University

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Published on September 04, 2020
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