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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

Colours of Democracy

Saturday 10 July 2010, by Arup Kumar Sen

India has a long argumentative tradition in spite of its many failures. The tradition is reflected in our public debates. The debates, in their turn, make us aware of the less explored aspects of our social reality. Some of the recent interventions of public intellectuals are revisited below to enlighten us about the modalities of our governance.

Information technology has undergone a revolution in recent years. But, what kind of information do we get in public life? Mrinal Pande has argued that that in an age of iPods and iPhones, citizen journalists and film actor editors of the day, 24X7 channels set the pace for “breaking news”. “Hard news” is now hard to find. Pande raised a fundamental question in this connection:
How does one gather and then effectively anchor news stories for the new and distracted readers/viewers, linking them to the warmth of a recognisable community of fellow humans?1

POVERTY of information persists side by side poverty in material life. But, estimation of poverty is a great paradox in India. Jean Dreze has drawn our attention to this paradox. Let us listen to him:

Nothing is easier than to recognise a poor person when you see him or her. Yet the task of identifying and counting the poor seems to elude the country’s best experts. Take for instance, the “headcount” of rural poverty—the proportion of the rural population below the poverty line. At least four alternative figures are available: 28 per cent from the Planning Commission, 50 per cent from the N. C. Saxena Committee report, 42 per cent from the Tendulkar Committee report, and 80 per cent or so from the National Commission for the Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.2

Drèze argued that on close examination, the gaps in poverty estimates would not be found as big as they look, because they are largely due to the differences in poverty lines. He reminded us that the poverty line is, ultimately, little more than an arbitrary benchmark and it is difficult to give it a normative interpretation. He further argued that under-nutrition rates in India tend to be much higher than poverty estimates and this is not surprising, considering that the official “poverty line” is really a destitution line.3

Recently, Zoya Hasan has drawn our attention to the under-representation of the Muslim community in public life. She argued that although Muslims have played a decisive role in increasing the tally of the Congress and its allies in the last Lok Sabha polls, only five per cent of the elected Members of Parliament are Muslims. The number of Muslim MPs declined from 35 in the 14th Lok Sabha to 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha. She warned that the decline in the number of Muslim MPs ought to be a matter of serious concern since Muslim representation is already much lower than what the proportion of their population might warrant.4

Today, the major public debate in India relates to the entry of caste data in the Census. Ashish Nandy’s argument is relevant in this context:
Community and caste are still important in India…Each party has its data bank which is constantly updated on the detailed caste composition of each segment of the electorate. It is more detailed than any census operation.5

Nandy argued that though caste is treated as a dirty word today, caste in politics has been a channel of mobility—it has meant mobility in politics, just as politics has provided mobility to castes. He clarified that “untouchables” have been empowered and became part of society, thanks to being politically organised. Such empowerment would not have been possible without political organisation on the basis of their caste. Political empowerment, in its turn, creates the pre-condition for social and economic empowerment.6

The above arguments put forward by our eminent public intellectuals put a question-mark on our ‘common sense’ understanding of the Indian reality and draw our attention to the unusual sites of democracy.


1. Mrinal Pande, ‘Check please: Hard news is hard to find’ in The Indian Express, April 9, 2010.

2. Jean Drèze, ‘Poverty estimates vs. food entitlements’ in The Hindu, February 24, 2010.

3. Ibid.

4. Zoya Hasan, ‘The truth about the Muslim vote’ in The Telegraph, May 28, 2009.

5. Business Standard, May 20, 2009.

6. Ibid.

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