[Can the contradiction between underdevelopment and democracy be transcended]
This is the draft I wrote for the editorial for the Economic and Political Weekly, VOL 44 No. 23 June 12, 2009. There may be many differences between this draft and the EPW editorial.
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As has been widely remarked, this is the first time in more than two decades that an incumbent government has been re-elected after serving its full term in office. What is remarkable about this feat is that it has come at a time when the India is facing the impact of the global recession with job losses and spiralling food prices starting to hit the poor and middle classes. These two decades was also the period of neo-liberal economic reforms which emphasised privatisation of public assets and the retreat of the State.
There has been wide ranging research on different aspects of these reforms, much of it carried on the pages of this journal, which has been largely critical of their social and economic impact. In short, this research claims that India’s democratic state, despite some successes, has largely failed to meet most of its development goals. Further, state institutions like the police, bureaucracy and judiciary continue to remain distant, and often hostile, towards democratic aspirations and demands of the people while being ineffectual in stemming communal, caste and gender related violence, which has only grown in this period. Despite counting many dollar billionaires among its rich and a trillion dollar GDP, India still languishes at rank 128 in the global human development index with hundreds of millions of its citizens living, what can only be termed, a sub-human existence. All this seems in line with much of the global experience of neo-liberal economic reforms over the past many decades.
With regard to the present election results, it could be argued that ameliorative measures like rural employment guarantee, farm loan waiver, forest and tribal bills, etc helped the Congress and its allies win this election. But it is not merely a question of this particular election. What is remarkable is that the indices of democracy and political participation have been increasing during this very period of neo-liberal economic reforms. In contrast to what has been mentioned above, research on democracy, political participation and electoral processes seems to indicate that these have become deeply entrenched among people and are, in some senses, irreversible. Not only has popular participation in democratic processes seen a secular rise over the past two decades, it is actually the poor and marginalised who have led this surge, while those classes who have benefitted from the reforms have, in fact, withdrawn from participating in democracy’s institutions. There has also been a discernable shift in the nature of popular movements. Systemic challenges, of the sort which were launched by communist parties of various sort or secessionist movements, have clearly waned in comparison to the pre-economic reform period, while increasingly people are being mobilised in movements demanding specific concessions and rights from within the system.
This is not to argue that there is a clean or clear rupture between the two accounts outlined above. Most works on democracy do accept the many weaknesses and challenges still to overcome, while the more nuanced of studies on economic reforms do suggest a more complex picture of development and deprivation than simple narratives of doom.
Despite this qualification, what emerges is that we are today presented with two contrasting depictions of that same social reality which are also contradictory in what they are saying. The first account argues that the failures to meet its development goals are structural to the system and the State. Democracy is contingent to this reality and can easily be abrogated, it argues, by those in power if they feel threatened by it. The second account argues that democracy has become, in some senses, irreversible in India. It does not deny the failures of the development State, but seems to imply that these failures are corrigible. Crucially, the research which is emerging from the study of democracy and its practices, seems to suggest that it is the poor and marginalised who are convinced about this power of democracy. Underdevelopment, then, becomes redeemable to struggles and negotiations within democracy.
This is not to say that either of these two accounts are misrepresentations, rather both are based on extensive research and underpinned by rigorous theory. But what is interesting is that both these two varying accounts emerge from within that same cluster of left-liberal academia which has defined social sciences in India since independence. Drawing from the same pool of academic and political perspectives, researchers are coming up with clearly incompatible conclusions. Either the structural conditions of capitalist underdevelopment render democracy ephemeral, or the deepening of democracy has real consequences. Both cannot be equally valid.
By themselves such divergences do not necessarily imply a weakness in the body of research from which they emerge, and can even indicate a vibrant blossoming of ideas. Unfortunately, in the present case, each of these two contradictory accounts appears oblivious of the other’s claims and interpretations. Implicit in their own narrative is a denial of the other’s validity. It appears that both accounts fail to live up to the demands of both falsifiability and coherence by refusing to accommodate or even accept the challenge of the other account. It does appear that the problem is not so much with the depiction of facts per se, as it is with the theoretical apparatus which is employed to collect these facts and make sense of them. While structural and systemic critiques have failed to integrate the working of democracy in their interpretative framework, studies of democracy and democratic theory too has not paid sufficient attention to the structural foundations of underdevelopment. The inability to bridge this chasm weakens the social sciences, as “debates” between researchers do not lead to a conversation between them or to the possibility of transcending the given problem.
One of the challenges before social sciences in India today is to transcend this contradiction within its own body and work towards a richer and better understanding of the linkages between democracy and underdevelopment. This journal hopes to provide the platform, as it has done for the past six decades, for precisely such endeavours.
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