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India Eats Democracy
Zaid Hassan, 22 Feb 05

CalcuttaHow does one even begin to make sense of a drama as deep and wide as India?

Coming back from a recent trip to India, I’m somewhat puzzled by the many contradictory attitudes that India evokes within me. I find that I have a deep love of India that’s shot through with frustration and confusion. On the one hand I see India as the home of a great civilization that’s still growing and changing, a country imbued with vast curiosity and openness, that’s cosmopolitan and rural, that’s the home of Bollywood (an unapologetically South Asian phenomenon) and is without a doubt a global power. I love how India flies in the face of received wisdom -- for example I’m struck by the fact that both Kerala, one of modern India’s most successful states elected a Communist government in 1957, while West Bengal, one of India’s most culturally sophisticated states, has been run by the Communist Party (India) for twenty-seven long years. These oddities give me a gleeful sense that the laws of the known universe somehow work differently in India. It’s not just a bastion for difference but a source of difference. Then on the other hand I see the extreme deference that Indians have for status and power. I wonder at how easily educated Indians are willing to dismiss centuries old belief and knowledge systems as mere “superstition.” I see a country where the poor are treated like they’re sub-human. I see a country all too willing to step on the powerless in order to succeed at the global game. I feel that the myth of “India Shining” so feted by both non-Indians and Indians alike is somewhat simplistic. So, how is one to understand India today?

While flipping through Indian cable television it occurred to me that India is now being recognized as an “emerging power” or “world leader” or a super-state because she has learnt how to express herself fluently in Western categories. Now we can read Indian writers writing in English, we can watch Indian movies more or less in English (Mira Nair & others), we can watch Indian music videos in Hindi that look like classic MTV videos (“world music”) and we can watch Indian adverts in Hindi that look like anything you might see in London. At the other end of the spectrum, India is not just fluent in “soft power” but has also demonstrated her familiarity with “hard” forms of power; Indian elite engineering colleges are excellent, the Indian software industry is bringing in billions and to top it off India speaks the hyper-elite language of nuclear weapons. Now that India can express herself in a language (or languages) well understood by the West, the West is recognizing India as a power. Prior to that India expressed herself in terms incomprehensible to the Western ear and was seen largely through crude orientalist stereotypes.

Comprehending Indian reality is difficult in part because Indian fluency in Western categories is what our eyes are drawn to. Stories about India are either about the poverty-stricken India of orientalists-past or they’re about how India is succeeding in the things that we ourselves deem to be valuable, for example in technology. Indians themselves encourage and show-off these very same things to non-Indians. Nobody really wants their country to be known for corruption or poverty and it doesn’t make sense to show off those things which the West doesn’t value or, for that matter, understand. This however leads us to serious distortions in our understanding of India. Pavan K. Varma in his excellent and eye-opening book, Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century will be India'sexplains the difficulty as follows.

“The Indian reality is both transparent and opaque simultaneously. What is visible is as much a part of the truth as what remains unseen. Foreigners see what is overt, and conflate it with their preconceived notions of ‘the great Indian civilization’. In the process many assumptions evade critical scrutiny, and a great many inferences are either incorrect or partially true. But foreigners can be forgiven their errors. Not so the Indians. Over the years the Indian leadership, and the educated Indian, have deliberately projected and embellished an image about Indians they know to be untrue, and have willfully encouraged the well-meaning but credulous foreign observer (and even more the foreign scholar) to accept it. What is worse, they have fallen in love with that image, and can no longer accept it as untrue.”

Interrogating our images of India and penetrating the opaqueness of Indian reality matters, as Varma tells us, because India “is much too important today, and its potential far too significant in the coming decades to be held hostage to simplistic myth making.” One example of the complexity of the relationship between image and reality is the oft-heard claim that India is the world’s largest democracy. Without detracting from this claim, which is undoubtedly true, a closer look at the functioning of Indian democracy reveals a bloody and somewhat disturbing edge. Of the various models of democracy at work around the world, from the Swiss Cantons to Lee’s Singapore, Indian democracy surely surpasses all in its raw, bare knuckled brutality.

Suketu Mehta explores this brutality up-close as part of his astonishing and wide-ranging study of Bombay, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mehta’s account of how democracy in India, at least on one level, functions, makes for chilling reading. He tracks the story of a young Shiv Shena strongman, thug and murderer called Sunil, who also happens to be an entrepreneur running a successful cable business. Sunil was part of the apparatus that helped the right-wing, Hindu nationalist party, the Shiv Shena, gain control of Bombay. Mehta concludes Sunil’s tale, somewhat wearily, admitting,

“Sunil will inherit Bombay, I now see. The consequences of his burning the bread seller alive: when the Sena government came in two years later, he got appointed a Special Executive Officer; he became, officially, a person in whom public trust is reposed…He is idealistic about the nation and utterly pragmatic about the opportunities for personal enrichment that politics offers. Sunil, in fact, can be held up as an exemplar of the capitalist success story…The fact that a murderer like Sunil could become successful in Bombay is both a triumph and failure of democracy. Not all politicians are as compromised as he is but the ones who aren’t have to rely on people like Sunil to get elected.”

It’s in interstices such as these, complex, deeply disturbing and yet dare-we-say hopeful stories, that India reveals herself to us. They can be read in a number of different ways. Varma, for example, argues that democracy has survived and grown in India precisely because it provides people like Sunil a route to power. The millions upon millions of Indians who live in urban slums or who are low in the caste system can see a pragmatic road that leads them clearly out of their current situations. These routes also function as release valves, ensuring that millions of Indians not only have hope but slowly and surely have an increasing stake in the system. Indians, argues Varma, are not democratic by nature, rather they’re deeply attracted to power. Democracy has given Indians an institution that they can work in order to gain personal power. Indians have come to accept democracy, a Western category if there ever was one, on their own terms and for their very own reasons.

India’s fluency, however, in the categories of the West points to a somewhat different destiny than simply being a better copy of the West or even being a true counter-player (as China might be). India’s genius lies in her ability to speak multiple languages. Indians can, and have been, both Indian and Western in a way that Westerners, at least increasingly, are not. To be white and Danish or French, to pick two random examples, means being Danish or French and not Danish-Indian or French-Indian. Ashis Nandy, one of India’s foremost public intellectuals explains how for Indians the “boundaries of the self are not as sharply demarcated in terms of belief, faith or identity, categories that the moderns feel comfortable with.” Historically, this is how India coped with waves of invaders and with colonialism. In his classic study on the effects of colonialism on the Indian and British psyches, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, Nandy writes that Indian “…culture protects itself – against cosmologies which are proselytizing, hegemonic and committed to some secular or non-secular theories of cultural evolution – by projecting the idea that the Indian is compromising; he has a fluid self-definition, and he is wiling to learn the ways of his civilised brethren unconditionally, provided such learning is profitable.”

This ability to live and thrive with blurred “boundaries of self, ” with fluid self-definition, ensures that Indian culture has a certain resilience in the face of the homogenising storm of globalisation. Whereas the French worry and fret about the impact of US culture on their heritage, the Indians lap it up. They take the stuff that Hollywood produces and make it Indian, for Indians, with no fuss. The streets of Mumbai are awash with ten year old street vendors peddling bootleg Harvard Business School Press paperbacks. For Indians intellectual property regimes are an irritant, a barrier to innovation.

This fluidity, resilience and ability to assimilate are reasons why the twenty-first century may well turn out to be Indian. Call it courage or foolhardiness, in its engagement with the world India does not fear becoming not-Indian. Democracy, in other words, has not eaten India, rather India has eaten democracy.

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One thing about party labels is that they are often drained of their ideological content. I doubt that a standard issue communist party could exist in government for 27 years without force of arms. It is much more likely that the communists are carrying the label like 3M was short for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. I would not doubt that the Communist party in India resembles Stalin, Lenin, et al as much as 3M is a mining company today.

Posted by: TM Lutas on 22 Feb 05

If by "standard issue" you mean a party apparatus that follows a Soviet model as well as being static and unchanging then you're right - it would be impossible. The Communist Party in Bengal and Kerala is obviously not static. I do think it's more than a label though.

One of the things I saw in rural West Bengal was Communist Party graffiti all over the place. Part of the reason they continue to remain in power is a tremendous on-the-ground party apparatus.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 22 Feb 05

Many of the paradoxes you show about India are very similar to what Mexico is too Zaid. Two countries with an ancient rich culture, a colonial past and a resilience that makes them at the same time one and many. Maybe, I think that like MexicoŽs shadow - a strong patriarchal culture that sees women and gays like 2nd class citizens, an autoritarian psiquis that makes Government and Church the powers to obey with many risks if you dont follow suit... - India may be similar too. Our students should go to study abroad if they want but not only to the U.S. or Europe, but also to see the mirror that South-South cultures can be. Very good essay Zaid.

Posted by: Alfredo Narváez on 22 Feb 05


I've been waiting to answer your mail after our brief meeting at the Ghetto,and I will, but I also hoped you would write something here. Great!

An interesting point of view is often expressed by Malayali writer Paul Zackaria - that more than a nation by itself, India is a conglomerate of several nations forcibly bound together by poverty and hope.

I'm certainly more optimistic about the poverty bit.

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 23 Feb 05

there was a good article on india and china today in the FT, mostly from a comparative development angle :D

"Both are the heirs of great civilisations. But China's civilisation is inseparable from its state, while India's is inseparable from its social structure, above all from the role of caste.

"This difference permeates the two countries' histories and contemporary performance. As Lord Desai of the London School of Economics has noted, 'for India, the problem [is] achieving unity in diversity'. China, however, is a 'unitary hard state, which can pursue a single goal with determination and mobilise maximal resources in its achievement'."

also national geographic had a great article on bollywood last month!

particularly interesting i thought was the comparison of jews in hollywood to muslims in bollywood :D


Posted by: glory on 23 Feb 05

What a skewed stupid notion this article is? It seems like some westerner went to India and was shocked to see things are not that bas as he thought and tried digging up some shit to throw on Indians. American democracy if it was one...went through the same churnings of politician,mafia,ethnic cleansing as any democracy which is bound in a diversity like India.
America remains a safe democracy not necessarily because people are different but the American form of execution of law and its system make America livable. To generalise Indians as some sort of degenerates and make assumptive statements about their notion of being power crazy is simply the work of a lunatic. I hope the writer get sover it..and fixed voting machine scams in a suposed "advanced country" of the world...yes..The US of A

Posted by: Som on 25 Feb 05

To address your concerns.

The origin of the idea that Indians are not particularly democratic and that they worship power comes from personal experience of India - both my own, as well as the experiences of my parents and my grandparents (all of whom were Indian).

The clearest articulation of the idea that Indians "worship" power comes from Pavan K. Varma who in the first chaper of his book "Being Indian" explores this idea in depth. His qualifications in making the claim that Indians are not particularly democratic are as follows:

"Pavan K. Varma graduated with honours in History from St. Stephens College, Delhi, and took a degree in Law from Delhi University. A member of the Indian Foreign Service, he has served in Moscow, in New York at the Indian Mission in the United Nations, and as India's High Commissioner in Cyprus. He has been Press Secretary to the President of India, Official Spokesman for the Foreign Office, and is at present Director of the Nehru Centre in London."

Finally, I don't think Indians are degenerates but then I also don't think the USA is a particularly democratic or "advanced" country.

Posted by: Zaid on 25 Feb 05

Another good book is called "A Fine Balance" by R. Mistry. This book has a story quite like the Sunil story in it. Thanks for the book recommendations. Yes, Kerala did have a Communist government, and it was progressive--it was especially known for good schools, educating women, and public health--in fact it was a development model for many years. I also just returned from India, and I appreciate your comments and insight, it's a bedeviling place. The dualing notions of the country by nationals are very apparent on many different levels. I have friends there that completely disassociate themselves from the poverty stricken India--they deny that it exists. Others acknowledge it but disassociate the people-- "they" live like animals, or are uneducated, or this or that. Similiar to the way some in the West talk about third world countries---rather then "my neighbor/countryman", or "the family that lives along side the road there that I see every time I leave my house". I find that honest commentary about India from travelers often elicits anger from people who either haven't been there, think you're being patronizing, or from Indians who feel that such commentary is degrading and portrays their country in a non-photogenic way. I loved India after a fairly quick but far flung trip in the North to cities as well as to some remote sections with virtually no tourists. But whereas I thought I would come back even more 'liberal' (if there was such a thing) similiar to the way one might feel after watching "Born into Brothels", instead, I found that it often had the opposite effect on me. Some of the more conservative views from my economic studies were brought to the fore, to my shock. I think India expresses quite well what we all are despite our air of civility.

Posted by: jen on 5 Mar 05



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