This blog has emphasized the historical truth that Indian democracy is a grand social experiment, the implantation of a democratic government in an undemocratic society. Three days before Republic Day is perhaps a good time to remind us of Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient words,
On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
The Constitution makers were well aware of these contradictions and believed that a combination of universal suffrage and legally guaranteed liberty would gradually democratize Indian society. Indeed, this has happened, but perhaps it has not happened in the way they imagined and to the extent that they had hoped. Along with the gradual spread of democratic expectations, there have been major ‘democratic upsurges’ which have decisively transformed Indian politics in a few years, but large populations still remain voiceless.
The first democratic upsurge occurred in the 70s with the emergency and collapse of Congress rule. Politically, this had the consequence of a non-Congress coalition ruling India for the first time since independence. Socially, it led to the transfer of political power from the upper caste Hindus who had dominated the Congress since its inception to the intermediate peasant castes, today called the OBCs or the Other Backward Castes. The second democratic upsurge, which began in the late 80s, brought the Dalits into the political mainstream as an independent force. By 2007, the Dalit controlled BSP ruled India’s largest state. However, the economic and social transformation of the second democratic upsurge is far from complete, with the Dalits continuing to face marginalization and violence, mainly from the OBCs.
It now appears that by the early 2010s, metro India’s neo-middle class was ready to enter politics with its own voice. During the India Against Corruption agitation, Ashis Nandy noted that middle class India was now a mass and wanted to play a bigger role in the country’s politics through its media clout. The key intervention of the AAP has been to combine this new middle class clout with the numbers and anger of Delhi’s working class to produce a transparent, non-sectarian urban political coalition.
However, it is important to emphasize that the AAP as it exists currently cannot call itself the third democratic upsurge. On observing India’s social structure and past democratic upsurges, it is clear that the groups most urgently needing a political voice are the marginalized adivasis in Central India, and the variegated populations at the peripheries of the Indian federation, who are living under quasi military-rule. The arrogant and short sighted policies of the GoI, and the emergence of violent extremists as the major political force representing these populations has created an unprecedented crisis in Indian democracy.
Producing the third democratic upsurge will clearly be a formidable task. The peripheral location, and secessionist tendencies of these groups means that the mainstream has come to see these issues as one of national integrity. There are some positive signs however, for example, the formation of the North East Regional Parties Front, and the 39 MPs from there speaking with unison on certain issues. Sooner or later, one hopes, the violence will subside opening up the space for saner voices.
Can AAP play a part in this opening up ? This is a tantalizing possibility, but one that is not very likely. One simply cant see AAP succeeding in India’s peripheries, where issues regarding identity are quite nuanced, and whose politics is quite unfamiliar to the ‘mainlander’ dominated AAP. However, AAP might be able to make an impact in India’s tribal belt. Perhaps the AAP can take an aim at the seats reserved for the STs in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the Maoists have had little impact, and a plethora of NGOs have found space to work with tribal populations. Indeed, a party with MPs only from the metros and tribal areas seems strange. But we must not forget that, the non-sectarian coalition between Delhi’s middle classes and working classes was almost unimaginable a few months ago, yet it now rules Delhi.
In the ideal scenario, one hopes that the emergence of an independent, non-violent political force in some tribal areas will push the Maoists to the political margins in states like Chhattisgarh, and create the space for these communities to have a stronger voice in Indian democracy’s shouting well.