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Mainstream, VOL LV No 29 New Delhi July 8, 2017

Rethinking Rajni Kothari’s Political Thought

Tuesday 11 July 2017, by Arup Kumar Sen

We are going through a political time in which our cherished notions of politics and democracy are at stake. This crisis propels us to revisit the political thought and political life of late Rajni Kothari, in search of an alternative notion of politics. The editors of a volume of essays dedicated to Rajni Kothari observed in the mid-1990s that his “contribution to the survival and deepening of Indian democracy is evident not only in his scholarly work but also in his life-long engagement with Indian public life and political culture”. The editors reminded us of the anti-establishment positions Kothari took, whenever the democratic values and institutions had been threatened in India, as during the Emergency (1975-77), and for the protection of human rights and civil liberties of vulnerable sections of the Indian people, as during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.1

In her tribute to Kothari (Economic Times, January 20, 2015), Shail Mayaram wrote: “Rajni Kothari was a political scientist who first put his finger on the pulse of the Indian political system and characterised it as One Party Dominance (OPD), a label which is relevant even today as we seem to have exited the era of the ‘Congress System’ and witness the BJP attempting to establish its own OPD.”

In his book, Rethinking Democracy (2005), Rajni Kothari noted: “...in recent times I have found myself getting increasingly concerned with the failure of democracy... in fulfilling the basic task of reaching out to people, especially those residing in the lower reaches of the social order.” In his search for alternative politics, Kothari did not envisage social transformation in the conventional channels of political parties, trade union activity, peasant organisations or capture of state power by political parties through electoral mobilisation. He reposed his faith in the coming together of new grassroots politics and thought.

The recent countrywide protests in the wake of public lynching of 16-year Junaid Khan in a train compartment inspire us to explore the emancipatory possibilities of non-party political formations, as imagined by Rajni Kothari.


  • D.L. Sheth and Ashis Nandy (ed.), The Multiverse of Democracy: Essays in Honour of Rajni Kothari, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1996.
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