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The legitimation crisis of Indian democracy

Professor Rajeev Bhargava for The Hindu

Will a disgruntled populace rely on one individual to work wonders or innovate new institutions when the democratic system itself is questioned?

For a people who have traditionally viewed the state as a spectacle and frequently turned their backs to it, Indians have rather swiftly become state-centric. We constantly talk and read about it, capture it in images and films, are lured by the magic of elections and its arithmetic, and many, including the poor, feel they have a claim on it; we expect the state to find a solution to most of our problems. This is foolhardy, because the state fails us persistently. But such is the power of the democratic imaginary that ordinary people continue to repose faith in the very idea of the state.

To be sure, the Indian state periodically suffers from an acute crisis of legitimacy (legitimation crisis). All democracies depend for their survival on public approval and consent. Legitimacy obtains when people justifiably feel that enough is being done by the state to deliver what they need and want. It is absent when the gap widens between people’s own expectations and the actual benefits received by them. Legitimation crisis then manifests itself in the steady accumulation of public complaints and grievances, in growing discontent, widespread disillusionment and popular protest; when large numbers of people begin to feel that they are victimised by their political system.

 

Three moments of crisis

Several such crises of legitimacy are seen in post-Independence India. I don’t want to go into specifics; instead, I draw attention to three distinct moments of the legitimation crisis of representative democracy in India. The first I call the crisis of procedural legitimacy. For long, our representatives were elected by a process that was neither free nor fair. Strategic violence often generated fear amongst ordinary people; booths were captured; women, Dalits, minorities, and the poor generally were prevented from voting or compelled to vote for a candidate not of their choice. The strengthening of the Election Commission and the deployment of Central paramilitary forces have, to a large degree, overcome this legitimation crisis.

However, a second crisis of legitimation was brewing simultaneously. The electorate hopes that those chosen by free and fair elections would accurately represent their interests and deliver on their demands. When this doesn’t happen, democracies plunge into what I call a crisis of representational legitimacy. In India, people attempted to resolve this crisis by a politics of community-based identities. Different groups, particularly the Dalits and the OBCs, decided to vote for people from their own respective castes, who they intuitively trusted, those who mirrored them.

But at least since 2011, the failure of “mirror representation” has pushed India to a deeper questioning of the democratic system itself. Call it the crisis of democracy’s moral legitimacy. A feeling of betrayal by members of one’s own community is accompanied by severe dissatisfaction with the entire democratically elected establishment. People increasingly feel that while the Indian economy is growing rapidly with more money circulating in the system, most of it is diverted and landing mysteriously in the lap of a very tiny upper crust. All political parties seem tainted: the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, and even the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Ever since, the electorate has desperately looked for some political agency outside the established order to fix the system.

 

Individual or institutions

To meet this crisis, two distinct responses have appeared before us. One messianic, that depends on a heroic individual rather than citizen-based institutions; the other dependent on the collective capacity of citizens to innovate new institutions. The first is embodied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has projected himself as a larger-than-life figure: strong, decisive, ruthlessly efficient, an outsider to the establishment who, untarnished by the ‘corrupt’ capillaries of Lutyens’ Delhi, can unblock the arteries through which goods and services could flow freely from the state to the people.

A second response emerged from a movement for greater transparency and accountability — all power-wielders must be permanently subjected to inspection, investigation and monitoring. Existing institutions of checks and balances seem insufficient to limit the power of democratically elected leaders. Citizens must take matters into their own hands, be persistently vigilant, diligently oversee government, act as watchdogs. Representative democracy can survive only with more participatory democracy. This was the promise of the UPA’s Right to Information Act and the movement that led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party.

However, with the apparent seduction of large sections of the people by the first response and the AAP leadership increasingly uncertain about which of the two responses it exemplifies, several worrying questions have sprouted of which two are paramount: What demons might be unleashed if and when the first response flounders? And, which new leadership will bring the people back to the properly democratic path, one that strengthens our best institutions and helps invent new citizen’s initiatives?

This article was written for The Hindu

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