Democracy in India continues to deepen alongside growing calls for stronger executive power. How can we explain this paradox?

We may try to wish away the paradox by pretending that the current regime is simply undemocratic. But that will not do: whether one likes it or not, the regime is in power after winning free and fair elections. It may be illiberal, but it is certainly not undemocratic.

Democracy in India was a gift of the elites to the masses. The Congress party, which led the nationalist movement, lacked serious challengers, especially after the Muslim League’s hasty exit. The Congress had fared well in the elections of 1937 and 1946 except in the partitioned provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Accordingly, it felt emboldened to take a modest risk by extending the franchise to all adults who were deemed Indian citizens. The odds of losing were so low that they were left to mathematicians to ponder.

To the extent that democracy was a gift to the people of India, it may be regarded as a kind of noblesse oblige – the idea that the privileged should use their social position to help other people. The well-born and high-minded in India believed that the vote would give people a stake in an otherwise divided and hierarchical society. Many of them hoped that divisions along communal or regional lines would be subordinated to the interests of the fledgling nation. But few, if any, among them hoped for a time when the high and the low would interchange places in society. The gift of postcolonial democracy was, in short, a Brahminical one, topped off by the ascent of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to political preeminence. The liberality, if not liberalism, of the Brahmin rulers followed from a sense of obligation to the unwashed masses, in whose name anti-colonial nationalism and the subsequent nation-state enjoyed legitimacy.

In this new polity, caste society as it had been refashioned under colonial rule held sway. Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus captured the curious dynamics of this social order that placed the Brahmin at the top and the so-called Untouchables at the bottom. Even as Dumont’s Indian interlocutors disagreed with his model of Indian society, they came up with complementary notions such as Sanskritisation to approvingly describe the practices pursued by the lowborn to emulate the Brahminical elite. Nonetheless, it was politically incorrect or, to be precise, casteist to speak much of caste. After all, Sanskritisation, for the Nehruvian elite, was the desired form of modernisation in India. Everyone, it was hoped, would follow the example of Chacha Nehru.

Democracy and reordering society

Alas, Mr and Ms Demos (the populace of a democracy) felt differently. Having received the gift of the vote from their social superiors, they realised its potency soon enough. Zamindars and rajas could be rejected in elections, but perhaps more importantly, replaced by those who did not enjoy the privileges of high birth. The vote came to be regarded as a peculiar kind of dana (offering or donation) made during the pursuit of political power even as it was also a form of self-expression (mat). The electoral rituals of mat-dana, the Hindi word that refers to the act of casting a vote, legitimised, even sacralised, power in the new democratic polity. Some among the people could now justifiably claim to represent them in ways that the Nehruvian elite never could. Democracy thus took on a life of its own. Whenever the Brahmin rulers demanded gratitude, the rest of society could stick their tongues out at them.

Yet democracy in India, as it has evolved, has not produced a more equal society. Its transformative effects lie instead in reordering society into new forms of hierarchy. Democratic representation, after all, means that those who represent us are like us, and yet, rule over us. Everyone has a vote, but not everyone is a leader. Standing for public office is costly and time-consuming, and only a few are willing to bear these costs to pursue politics as a vocation. These democratic representatives, regardless of party affiliation, are modern-day Kshatriyas who promise to wield their considerable power for the common good. Whether Brahmin or Dalit by birth, anyone can seek to embody the new ideal of Kshatriyahood. Popular films from Inquilaab to Baahubali reflect this new democratic ideal, which is linked to a desire for strong men who can lead and defend society. This is neither a gender-sensitive nor an egalitarian desire. Muslims, women, the poor, and the differently abled are soft targets in our democratic public sphere. Democracy in India, therefore, ought to be understood in terms of the multiple social hierarchies that it generates and sustains.

A new Kshatriyahood

The rise of Narendra Modi as the country’s leading strongman is the latest manifestation of the new Kshatriya ideal in Indian democracy. It shows that even the son of a tea seller from a so-called backward caste can today claim Kshatriyahood in the democratic arena. It mocks the aristocratic liberalism of the Nehruvian elite as it claims to rule in the name of the people. It justifies the executive’s use of brute force as long as electoral victories confirm the legitimacy of power holders. It exhibits a barely-disguised disdain for the bookish knowledge that has come to be associated with Nehru and his followers. In sum, it celebrates the interchanging of places between the high and the low in society, which, of course, the well-born see as both humiliating and unjust. Yet there were also continuities. Now as in the past, politics trumps economics: the state remains the main driver of economic growth and its partnership with big business remains the key to success. The grand ideologies of socialism and neoliberalism remain hollow words, empty syllables without meaning. The everyday business of democratic politics is far too pragmatic to be shackled by such pompous abstractions.

It is not surprising that the Modi regime sees itself as representing a new democratic order. Indeed, it presents itself as a revolutionary regime, albeit one whose mandate to rule rests on the popular will. Therein lies its Achilles heel. The new Kshatriyahood is, after all, available to all those who seek it, and the Modi regime has no monopoly over it. Neither is Hindu nationalism as irresistible as its champions and critics imagine. Nationalism is a powerful force in modern democracies, but loyalties to the composite Indian polity have always competed with passionate attachments to regions and vernaculars that have propelled nationalism elsewhere in the world.

Now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, the furies of democracy have been unleashed across localities and regions. What some critics denounce as lawlessness and vigilantism cannot be entirely explained as state-sponsored acts of communal violence. They are also signs of growing discontent with the social status quo. The current regime has demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that the rule of law is a myth. Over the last three years, it has also offered no panacea to the longstanding problems of poverty, exploitation, and joblessness. When the popular image of a hyper-virile Kshatriya hero is shattered, he is denounced by the demos as a eunuch or napunsak. As the paradox that is our democracy deepens, other Baahubalis lie in waiting, eager to feast on the foibles of the current lot and promising a further reordering of our turbulent society.

Uday Chandra is Assistant Professor, Government, at Georgetown University, Qatar.