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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 42

Democracy and Self-Representation

Wednesday 8 October 2008, by Vivek Kumar


After intense political debate it has been decided that for the first time in the 218-year old US democracy a Black will be contesting for the prestigious presidential elections. Is it out of blue that the world’s “most developed democracy”, the US, is going to choose its first Black President or is this a new stage in the evolution of US democracy? If the latter is true, then US democracy is moving up and reaching a higher level. This means it has created an atmosphere in which the excluded and the marginalised are asserting for self-representation rather than being represented by White males. Democrats have been clever enough to capture the mood of their society. That is why they fielded both a woman, Hillary Clinton, and a Black, Barack Obama, as their candidate in the primaries for the presidential elections. Democrat Obama justified his inclusion by asking for a comprehensive debate on racism and raising problems of poverty and emerging unemployment in the US. Isn’t it astonishing that somebody is frank enough to ask for a debate on poverty and unemployment in the world’s most developed economy? Obama also boasted of his acquaintance with the socio-economic conditions of the underdeveloped and developing countries as he has lived and visited these countries unlike his rival who have never visited these places.

The debates by Obama reminded one of the American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), an integral part of the reform movements in the United States aimed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring suffrage in the Southern states. It refreshed the memories of the Black Power Movement, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1975 and enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from White domination.

If we take US politics of the last decade into account, it is not that Republicans were not aware of this social fact of their society. However, instead of giving the marginalised self-representation they opted for another strategy. The strategy was of co-option and giving them a dependent status. Republicans co-opted these excluded categories in their Administration. Colin Luther Powell was the first Jamaican American to be appointed as the United States Secretary of State by the Republicans from 2001 to 2005. Later on he was succeeded by Condoleezza Rice—the first Black woman and second African American to become the Secretary of State. Maybe Republicans wanted to kill two birds (woman and Black) with one stone. In the process the White governing elite among Republicans have not been able to leave their lust for power and therefore they relied on symbolic representation of the African Americans and women. Another thing which should be kept in mind here is that the treatment meted out to Colin Powell and his silent disappearance after the Iraq war is still fresh in the memories of the marginalised American community.

Here I am not arguing that if a Black is in the process of becoming or becomes the US President there will be structural change in American society or in the lives of the millions of excluded people in the US. However, I want to emphasise here that with this change at the helm of affairs in US politics, the excluded and the marginalised can emphatically declare three things. One, they can assert that it is a historic moment for the Blacks that they are having a choice of their own—a Black as presidential candidate in 218 years of democratic history. Otherwise they were supposed to elect a White even against their will. Secondly, the Black can stress that they have also arrived. And thirdly, they will make the point that they are no more passive onlookers; rather, they can also directly influence the policies and make laws for others.

IT is a fact that Indian democracy is still at a nascent stage. However, the Indian political elite should learn some lessons from this political process in contemporary US ‘democracy’. Indians should not only be content that Obama carries a small statue on Hanuman; rather, we should look at the democratic values this election has emphasised. One thing the political elite in India should learn is the culture of inner-party democracy. The way Obama and Hillary Clinton, both belonging to the same political party, contested for their candidature in the primaries is unimaginable in India. We have seen political bosses—the ‘High Command’ of different political parties—nominating candidates for different executive posts in India. Or the political parties have got bifurcated just because there are ambitious leaders for one post. Parties have become captives of families and individuals and leaders are not able to differentiate between the Party and the Parivar (family). And now the political constituencies are handed over to the sons and daughters by their parents as if it is their empire. Against this in the US even Bill Clinton couldn’t influence his wife’s candidature. In the end the people’s choice prevailed. In this context we have a long way to go.

Another thing which the Indian political elite should realise, faster the better, is that like in the US the days of representing the marginalised by according them a symbolic or nominal representation in India are coming to an end. The marginalised groups—Dalits, tribals, women, etc—in India, are also asserting for self-representation. The demand of the ‘Women’s Resevation Bill’ and the disappearance of Dalit leaders with substantial following from the parties led and dominated by the so-called upper castes are testimony to the above fact. Gone are the days when the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were restricted to the ‘Cells’ specially established for them or made Vice-Presidents in the different political parties and they felt obliged to cast their votes in favour of that party. In the coming days it will be difficult for the Dalit candidates, contesting from the Congress, BJP or any other political party with so-called upper-caste domination, to win a seat from a reserved constituency. The Dalits and other marginalised sections are slowly but surely realising that their emancipation lies in their self-representation rather than being represented by those who do not belong to them. That is why we are witnessing a number of region and community-based parties emerging day by day. However, one should realise that this has not happened in a day. This evolution of Indian politics has a history.

Ambedkar had long back emphasised the point of self-representation in Indian politics by asking for separate electorates for the Dalits. He did so because he was convinced that representation of opinions by itself is not sufficient to constitute a popular government. To ensure its true meaning it requires personal representation as well. A government with representation of opinions is sure to educate some into masters and others into subjects. Therefore, Ambedkar argued that it is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be law-makers; otherwise those who can be law-makers will be masters of those who are electors. But Ambedkar could not win the demand for separate electorates because of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s opposition. However, after two decades of Indian’s political democracy Kanshi Ram started the quest for self-representation of the marginalised communities with the slogan “Vote Hamara, Raj Tumhara—Nahi Chalega, Nahi Chalega (Our Vote, Your Rule Shall No Longer Prevail)”. By establishment of the Bahujan Samaj Party and installing Mayawati as the first Dalit woman Chief Minister of UP he laid the foundation of self-representation of the Dalits and other marginalised sections of the Indian society. Mayawati, on her part, has further strengthened this quest for self-representation by winning the UP elections and forming the government on her own in 2007 and is now igniting aspiration among her followers to capture the Prime Ministership of the country.

Therefore, the sooner the political elite realise that it is futile to visit the thatched huts and distribute cheap rice or liquor to Dalits the better. They should start a comprehensive debate on casteism, poverty, unemployment, gender discrimination, communalism etc. For instance, if they are honest enough they should ask why even after 60 years of India’s ‘political democracy’ a social group (Gujjars) is demanding Scheduled Tribe status although they have been already accorded OBC status. Why in this epoch of globalisation when economic development is said to be the highest in the history of India, with a high Sensex, a nine per cent growth rate, huge foreign direct Investment and increasing number of multinational corporations coming to this country, is a community ready to sacrifice hundreds of lives for the sake of reservation? Why afer the launch of series of satellites successfully, ten in a row, the announcement of the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NERGA) and following the waiver of loans for small and marginal farmers, are they forced to embark on such a violent agitation?

But we know that they will not raise a debate on the aforesaid issues as these issues never affect them directly or indirectly. Rather, theses leaders are conscious of the fact that they can represent the people till the people remain marginalised and exploited. However, as the people are becoming more and more conscious about their fundamental rights, they are asserting more and more for self-representation. Here the leaders should realise that self-representation by the marginalised is the future of Indian politics which will wipe all the ‘isms’ from Indian politics. The dictum at the grassroots says it all—“Jiska Mudda Uski Ladai, Jiski Ladai Uski Agwai (Leadership should be in the Hands of the Sufferer)”. Can the ‘people’ in India change the attitude and thinking of the ruling elite?n

The author is an Associate Professor of Sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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