Dipankar Gupta calls on Citizen Elite to step into messiah’s shoes
By Madhusree Chatterjee
The emerging India of 1.2 billion people is increasingly pinning its wish list on to a new tribe of citizen elite to keep its democratic apparatus kicking, shifting the onus of welfare in the process from the crop of all-too-familiar politicians to the “elite citizens of calling” born to a greater destiny.
“When I refer to the citizen elite, I am thinking of the members of the elite class who push the government to deliver secular goods like health, education and infrastructure to the masses. They are members of the elite communities and yet think citizenship,” says renowned sociologist, commentator and writer Dipankar Gupta, who heads the Centre for Public Research and Critical Theory.
In his new book, “Revolution from Above: India’s Future and Citizen Elite”, Gupta shifts the expectations of advancement of democracy in a welfare state like India to the social cream like that of the “Victorian Radicals” in 19th century Europe.
The “Radicals”- as Gupta brands them in the book- were an elite class of landlords and merchants in Britain, who carried British democracy forward with radical populist measures that had profound consequences.
In his book, Gupta says “reality everywhere runs contrary to the principles of democracy and the credo of fraternity that is so central to democracy consequently finds little resonance in popular cultures across the world”.
He points out that human tendency is to naturally distance people and cultures into “us” and “them” and in way that “us” can never be “them”. Hence there is need for fraternity and elite of calling – especially in a nation like India where democracy is fragile forced notion that has to be continuously nurtured at the hustings.
“I wanted to address our elite. And tell them what a great chance you have to do things,” Gupta says in a freewheeling interview.
The sociologist quotes 20th century Hungarian thinker Karl Mannheim to debate that the elite cannot be sequestered in a privileged existence. “Intellectuals cannot sit in ivory towers, the only way to be an intellectual is to be engaged with events around you,” Gupta says. He cites from the lives of Indian heroes Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru… “They were all from privileged backgrounds but their thoughts were not of personal interest. They (read thoughts) were of the country. They carried the Indian democracy forward.”
In this context, Gupta rakes up the “politics of the given”- a political theory that factors in given positions in life as the determinant of change and progress. “We all have our given stations in society and we are always trying to maximize on our positions in the society- playing on the power of the given instead of changing the pattern, which is the essence of democracy,” the sociologist expounds. Politics in India still thrives on a “patron-client” relationship and various other linkages between the given and the powers that be.
“A good social thinker would say that I am going to break the system…I am going to fight it,” the writer says.
Taking cue from Nehru’s life, Gupta narrates how the former Indian Prime Minister, on visiting Aligarh Muslim University six months after taking over as Prime Minister, remarked that he did not like the qualifier “Muslim University”.
“No one has ever said it,” Gupta says pointing it (the name) out as an example of playing on the politics of the given.
Globally, democracy made the maximum progress worldwide before the Cold War in 1953-1954. The War lasted for four and a half decades and the two mortal enemies –
Communism and Capitalism- were locked in mortal struggle. “Democracy was the collateral damage in the war. It was either free market or Communist control. In the reigning and ensuing law of the market, we have forgotten about democracy,” Gupta says.
Democracy best functions in times of crisis, the writer points out. “All the major breakthroughs in democracy took place when countries (concerned) have fought acute scarcity – poverty- like the Basque country of Spain and Sweden of 1933 when one million people were hungry,” he said.
The notion of democracy is fuelled by Utopia- the utopian impulses have to be periodically surcharged to fend off dystopia (inertia)that sets in after a period of frenzied political and economic activity in a democracy. An India in an election mode cannot afford to sink into dystopia. “A democracy that is only about election is not worth it,” the writer comments. According to British journalist and analyst Walter Bagehot, democracy is a fine balance between the rule of the law and the rule of numbers, Gupta says.
When India became independent in 1947, its population trebled in seven weeks. “Out of every four Indians, three were from Pakistan. They were angry, they had suffered and they hated the sight of Muslims. How much of that anger still resides,” Gupta says by way of illustrating how Nehru won the democratic elections of 1951, 1956 and 1961 till 1967 when the Congress teetered on the brink.
“Nehru had secular goods on offer.” Gupta said.
And Nehru, an elite, thought big for the nation rising above the sectarian divides.
Similarly, the Suffragette Movement of the 1870s, which advocated women’s rights, was led by well-to-do activists who could have stayed at home, sitting pretty after attending finishing schools. Women leaders like Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and Eleanor Marx came from affluent backgrounds,” Gupta says in his book.
The writer uses Mahatma Gandhi’s “Ahimsa” as a model for elitist intervention arguing that without Gandhi, India may still have become free, perhaps earlier, but it would not have been a liberal democracy. Gandhi chose to do what he thought was right and persuaded people to follow him.
But a query where politician Narendra Modi, the much-hyped chief minister of Gujarat, can be described as an elite citizen of calling meets with a measure of skepticism. “When Modi came to power, only 187 villages were left to be electrified, But Modi claimed credit for rural electrification. The fact was most of the infrastructure in the state had been built before Modi, but he has looked after the goods he inherited and built on it,” Gupta analyses.
Looking ahead at the election in 2014, Gupta foresees ample scope for “utopias” to keep the democracy alive. “But the three game changers could be health, education and infrastructure – which require universality of policies. You and I will go to the same school, same hospital and walk on the same road,” he says.
It is a trickle down effect from the top – when the elite citizens of calling will expedite delivery of goods to the roots. Almost like the Basque region of Spain that bounced back from General Franco’s brutality (remember Guernica holocaust in Basque - immortalized by Picasso) with an elite citizen driven development model that has transformed the economic soul of the region, the writer observed.
“Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite” has been published by Rainlight/Rupa & Co. Priced Rs 495
Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org