In India, liberal democracy is on the right, not backfoot | Opinion | Times Crest
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In India, liberal democracy is on the right, not backfoot


he robust engagement of rural India in the election process is a marker of how strong Indian democracy is, says scholar Christopher Bayly.

Christopher Bayly, currently director of the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, is a distinguished historian of India and one of the world's most noted academics. His 2004 book 'The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 : Global Connections and Comparisons' was widely praised, among other things, for further pushing the 'global approach to historical change'. Bayly, whose latest book, 'Recovering Liberties', examines the beginnings of modern India's liberal democratic traditions, met TOI-Crest during a Delhi trip to discuss Indian democracy, liberalism under siege and the state of the nation-state

Would you agree with the notion that liberal democracy is now on the backfoot in India and around the world?

Well, liberalism's always been on the backfoot everywhere. But as far as India goes, beginning in the 1930s and 40s, liberalism did directly feed into democratic politics here, and even though some liberals were very worried about notions of universal suffrage, India did leap to full universal suffrage, which was an extraordinary event in history. This has had far reaching consequences. Particularly in the way people in India still go to elections, especially poor people - how they vote in very large numbers and are clearly fired up by the possibility of changing the government. But one of the things that I've noticed in the media over the last few months is that there appears to be an assumption that it's 'our' fault, and let's beat our breast that liberal democracy 'isn't working all that well' and needs to be 'saved'. Well, it's true that democracy is in trouble everywhere - it's partly to do with the power of the State, partly with new types of media and the State reaction to that and it also has something to do with fears about issues like ethnicity and race. On the subject of India, there has also been a continual drip of criticism that China has growth and wealth because it is not encumbered by democracy like India. But even mildly authoritarian constructs are not an option in India now and it seems to me that liberal democracy is on the right foot rather than the back. So there still is a lot of strength there, particularly because ordinary people are so very involved in India.

You've written extensively on how colonial subjects adapted mostly Western ideas of liberalism and democracy in various ways. These notions were then rewoven and deployed against the in India.

Absolutely, I don't like the concept of 'mimic men'. In fact all systems of global political thought have always been drawing on other contexts - to adjust to your own context. That was true of English liberals in the nineteenth century as well. Besides, there's always clearly been an engagement by Indian nationalists/ liberals/democrats with the wider world context in various ways, which continued with modern India. Yet there were various points at which Indian thinkers moved away very early from a British-type individualist, utilitarian liberalism. Rammohan Roy, for instance, complained about utilitarianism saying it lacked a spirit of compassion. Indian intellectuals were quite early making distinctions between 'negative' and 'positive' liberty, rejecting principles of political economy like laissez faire, talking of environmentalism and arguing for 'regional economics. '

So there's this call for balanced development, that we just can't have the Gandhian panchayati system or the top-down system of government. We've got to look at local society as a moral entity as well as think about economic change. So my view would be that Indian democracy, political thought and certainly liberalism have always adapted what they have received from outside, as well as with ideas generated internally. These have come together to provide a different sort of liberalism from anywhere else in the world. We can see this in the Ambedkarite programme as well, which is after all the biggest programme of positive discrimination ever. It precedes American Civil Rights in many ways, at least as a theory, and even feeds into it.

In fact you've described leaders like Ambedkar and Gandhi as 'counter preachers'. They picked up Western themes, turned then around and took them in completely different directions.

I used the term 'counter preacher' because, of course, 19th century political thought was highly moralistic and historicist. It drew on history to say that we (Indians ) had democracy, of a sort, before you (Europeans ) did, but equally you see they're (Indian thinkers) taking up the themes that Christian missionaries are throwing at them - of moral rearmament, of moral development - and you see people saying: "You Europeans are telling us to reform, but look at your own society. You're completely driven by money. Your lower classes are utterly destitute. " So that's why I used 'counter preachers' because it's a good example of how Indians used Victorian moralising against the British government, as a way of undermining it. And Gandhi is actually in that tradition, even if he develops and changes it. Of course, Gandhi's politics was idiosyncratic, but it was brilliantly conceived to create a consensus for popular action without alienating any group.

What is your prognosis for the nation-state now, as an entity whose contours are being aggressively reshaped by modern globalisation?

Modern globalisation is on a much more massive scale in terms of ideas, consumption and people, as compared to what I call 'old' or 'archaic' globalisation. But, as in the past, any form of globalisation usually has a local reaction. One begins to see it in the reconstitution of a new type of nation-state coming out of global crises with the rise of various kinds of protectionism. The nation-state is then used to exclude, whether commodities or people. If you look at a similar period in Europe after World War I - there lie the origins of the conflict that would come later. So globalisation usually has a kind of counter effect as much as it has a direct effect.

Ideas of the nation-state go up and down. In the 1970s, we were told that it is going to disappear and was being eroded by international institutions like the European Union. Now, partly because of this global financial crisis people are saying that the nationstate is coming back. What we see as a result of globalisation and economic malaise is a partial reconstruction of the nation-state as a rather aggressive entity. But at the same time, new media, new social and cultural developments are running ahead of the nation-state, so in a way what's happening is that the conflict between the State and what it's worried about is becoming more severe. The arrest of the Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi is a good case in point.

I think the differences between the nation-state and these powerful global and diasporic forces will only become sharper. The problem will be managing that. And ensuring that these don't lead to conflict.

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