Politics is the consequence of disagreements, sometimes trivial, sometimes profound. Sometimes real, often imagined. The nature of a society’s politics tells us how its disagreements are resolved. In democratic societies, disagreements are resolved within a democratic framework, validated by periodic elections and constrained by judicial oversight. In monarchical societies, disagreements are resolved by the monarch or some local representative of the monarch, a feudal lord perhaps. Tribal societies have their own mechanisms for resolving disputes, mediation by elders is typical, but rarely is such mediation constrained by any notion of individual rights.
For most of its history, the Indian subcontinent operated with a mixture of the monarchical and tribal setups, strongly constrained by religious authority. British conquest replaced this with a mixture of colonial administration, monarchical satraps and tribal backwaters. Some Indians disagreed with this system of maintaining order in society. Some thought it was patently cruel and unfair. Others thought it would destroy the ‘uniqueness’ of ‘India’, break its connection with its many pasts. Within this subset of Indians who disagreed with the British, some started the political process of resolving this dispute. Again, some thought that the English were outsiders who needed to be ‘kicked out’. Others were influenced by the wave of ‘people’s revolutions’ and sought to link up with their comrades around the world. Many saw glory in restoring their sanitized imagination of the old order. But one man was more influential than anyone else.
This man realized that disagreements never end. That the disagreement with the British would inevitably be replaced by disagreements among Hindus and Muslims, among Marathi’s and Kannadigas, among Tamil Brahmins and Tamil Dalits. If the first disagreement was resolved by ‘kicking’ the British out, Bengalis would soon be kicking Marwaris out, Malayalis would soon be pushing Tamils out, Jats would be elbowing Brahmins and they someone else and so on. He realized that that the very first disagreement should be resolved by talking, by agitating and protesting, not kicking and killing. This man never called anyone a traitor. Never called anyone an ‘anti-national’. Never. His character and intellect started attracting men and women of similar thoughts. These men and women brought their ideals, their own visions and energies to his movement.
These men and women dreamed of an India where disagreements would not be settled by power. Nor by the word of an emperor or the head of a tribe. They would be settled democratically, without recourse to violence and agitation. Sure enough, the disputes came. Disputes over state boundaries. State capitals. Official languages. Distribution of resources. Each a valid dispute. Each had a shade of grey, like all disputes do. But the post colonial masters of India, the same men and women who had so bravely and successfully disagreed with the colonialists deemed these disputes irrelevant. India learnt a new word: ‘anti-national’.
The British killed 1000 at Jallianwala Bagh for demanding independence. The post-independence government of Bombay state killed 105 at Hutatma Chowk for demanding Maharashtra. And, to the great misfortune of the people of the future state of Maharashtra, the man who led the independence movement was forgotten and a new regime slowly occupied his space. Now the new Maharashtra would be ruled, not by consultation, but by muscle. Indians had reclaimed India by being fearless against a formidable opponent. Now they would settle disputes amongst themselves by fear. By domination. And in a strange twist to the quote, by the strength in numbers.
Fear worked, as long as the opponent was not capable delivering the same violence back. So a mixed system evolved. If two similarly sized states were fighting over water from a river, the dispute was to be settled democratically. If a well-connected individual and the state were disagreeing over a piece of writing, the dispute was to be settled democratically. But almost everything else was settled by who could cause more damage, more fear, who commanded more ‘respect’. Electoral monarchy for the many weak, constitutional bureaucracy for the few powerful.
Now, the first generation of the monarchy is withering. Succession struggles are sprouting from every corner of the supposedly democratic nation. Such struggles in monarchies had a definite conclusion; the last man standing was the new king. After that, business as usual resumed. Something tells me that succession in India’s electocracies will be messier. The absence of many real choices means that electoral monarchy might continue for a while. But the anonymity of the vote perhaps implies that the outlook for the would-be successors is not as good as they would like to imagine.
In his ‘Burden of Democracy’, political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta noted; democracy gives us the power to make a choice. And the choice is India’s to make.