Friday, April 8, 2011

Hunger Fasts and Sluggish Democracy

Hazare’s fast, it must be said, has generated some very lively debate about the pros and cons of extra-constitutional methods that politics in our country often takes. Quite a few people argue that the system is broken beyond repair and the only solution would be one that comes from outside the system itself. Some on the other hand raise questions about the direction this movement is taking, and justifiably so. This sort of direct action, while purportedly peaceful, often has some pretty ugly fall-outs which we’ve seen ever since Gandhi pioneered this form of politics in our country (and I hope to write more on the history of extra-constitutional methods in later posts).

A common complaint from the anti-Hazare camp though is that this method of process undermines representative democracy by giving powers to a person on the ludicrous basis of the his or her capacity to live on, or eventually die, without food. Here’s how Pratap Bhanu Mehta starts of his editorial in the Indian Express:

“Sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy. The agitation by civil society activists over the Jan Lokpal Bill is a reminder of this uncomfortable truth. There is a great deal of justified consternation over corruption. The obduracy of the political leadership is testing the patience of citizens. But the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy.”

Prima facie, the point is a cogent one. But the point assumes one given condition: that India is a representative democracy.

What is a representative democracy? Simply put, it’s one in which elected representatives represent the people, because direct democracy, i.e. actually involving the people directly in government is not feasible. It is,therefore, assumed that these elected represtatives will act as the voice of the people. Well and good, so far.

However, in India, our elected representatives cannot act as the voice of the people who voted them to power because of a nifty little provision called the Anti-Defection Law which effectively forces a representative to vote as per his party high command’s wishes.

So, for example, if we have a constituency which has a number of factories of X industry and at the moment Parliament is debating a bill which would slap heavy taxes on that industry, logically the constituency’s MP should do everything in his power to defeat the bill and naturally vote against it. That would be representative democracy in action. The MP acts as the voice of his constituency. But in India that is not how it happens. If it so happens that his party wants the bill to be passed, this MP, elected to represent his constituency, will have to actually stab his constituency in the back or risk disqualification.

In such a case one wonders how much sense it would actually make to call India a representative democracy. Maybe we'd need to invent a new term?


A related post: A Very Costly Bill


Amit said...

"we’ve seen ever since Gandhi pioneered this form of politics in our "

Are you leading us to the Gandhi-was-a-closet-anarchist argument? That would be a ton of BS.

By the way, nice posts, and I am sorry for your travails as a Muslim. Try being a Bihari.

Hades said...


Gandhi was not a closet anarchist, he was an open one. There are a ton of his writings where he argues against a state and an arrangement where people rule themselves, directly.


P.S: I am half Bihari (one quarter actually) if that makes you feel better.

Amit said...

That is a well worn argument. I am aware of this theory that had it not been for Gandhi, India would have got independence earlier via constitutional means. It's a extremely naive/dishonest argument. From my interaction with Pakistani bloggers, they seem to be obsessed with that idea. That is understandable: that's the best argument if you want to laud Jinnah. What escapes me is why we, who know how our country functions, seem to be equally fascinated by this theory. The way we are so taken by status quo or to get "settled" in life, it would take only a wacko to kick us out of our stupor. We can disagree with a lot of what Hazare is doing. But why doesn't someone else take the mantle to do something.

As for the Bihari thing, I have had a hard time renting houses in Delhi. In my case, however, my accent was a blatant giveaway.

Hades said...


That is a well worn argument. I am aware of this theory that had it not been for Gandhi, India would have got independence earlier via constitutional means.

Woah. My argument was that Gandhi supported anarchism (or at least its final goals—no or minimum government). This other theory we have not even discussed far from it being “well worn”.

I also fail to understand how Jinnah or Pakistani bloggers come into the picture. I do not even see how it is relevant to what I have written.

If you’d really like to read an intelligent critique of Gandhi’s methods, I suggest you read the Tagore-Gandhi debates. You can order this book from Flipkart:

You’re welcome.

Hades said...

P.S: I'd like it if you could provide links to the said blogger's post on this though. Hum bhi to padhe.

Amit said...

I mentioned those differing strands because they draw their sustenance from the same premise that Gandhi was an anarchist. Now, I don't deny that he believed in such ideas at some point of time. But we have to see the context in which he wrote those lines. As always, there is danger of fitting complicated personalities like Gandhi in pre-labeled boxes. Taking that as a cue, one can also conclude that Bose was a fascist, JP an anti-democratic self-seeker, Rajendra Prasad a communalist, and, wait for this, Azad an ideological cousin of bombers that are wreaking havoc in Pakistan! In fact, many liberal Pakistanis and not a few Indians believe that.
I have read some parts of the conversations between Tagore and Gandhi. With all due respect, Tagore, an outstanding poet, was not an authority on solutions to social problems. As Gandhi said, Poets have a license to dream. Reality is otherwise.

As an aside, do you consider the phenomenon in Middle East as anarchist. At some level, it is.