After Nehru

NehruPerry Anderson in the LRB:

All liberal democracies are significantly less liberal, and considerably less democratic, than they fancy themselves to be. That does not cancel them as a category. There is no reason to judge India by a higher standard than is complacently accepted in older and richer versions. The explanation of democratic stability in a society that is so much poorer and more populous is only to a secondary extent to be found in institutional restrictions common enough in the species. It lies in a far larger enabling condition. To see what this might be, a truly distinguishing feature of Indian democracy – one that sets it apart from any other society in the world – needs be considered. In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, but vote in larger numbers than the better-off. Everywhere else, without exception, the ratio of electoral participation is the reverse – nowhere more so, of course, than in the Land of the Free. Even in Brazil, the other large tropical democracy, where – unlike in India – voting is technically compulsory, the index of ballots cast falls as income and literacy decline.

Why then has the sheer pressure of the famished masses, who apparently hold an electoral whip-hand, not exploded in demands for social reparation incompatible with the capitalist framework of this – as of every other – liberal democracy? Certainly not because Congress ever made much effort to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice. The record of Nehru’s regime, whose priorities were industrial development and military spending, was barren of any such impulse. No land reform worthy of mention was attempted. No income tax was introduced until 1961. Primary education was grossly neglected. As a party, Congress was controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals, in which the weight of the agrarian bosses was greatest, and its policies reflected the interests of these groups, unconcerned with the fate of the poor. But they suffered no electoral retribution for this. Why not?

The answer lies, and has always lain, in what also sets India apart from any other country in the world, the historic peculiarities of its system of social stratification. Structurally, by reason of their smaller numbers and greater resources, virtually all ruling classes enjoy an advantage over the ruled in their capacity for collective action. Their internal lines of communication are more compact; their wealth offers an all-purpose medium of power, convertible into any number of forms of domination; their intelligence systems scan the political landscape from a greater height. More numerous and more dispersed, less equipped materially, less armed culturally, subordinate classes always tend, in the sociologist Michael Mann’s phrase, to be ‘organisationally outflanked’ by those above them. Nowhere has this condition been more extreme than in India.