Is there life after democracy? Not that we know of. Not that Arundhati Roy knows of. In Listening to Grasshoppers, she worries sick about democracy’s future. Most of us know that no system is fair and perfect. But democracy remains our best bet. More than 60% of the countries in the world are practising some form of democracy. No two democracies are always similar—there are liberal and illiberal democracies. Emerging democracies, as author Sunil Khilnani says, release immense energies, raise towering expectations and suffer tragic disappointments. And India is no exception.
Point of view: Roy (top) is scathing in her criticism of the Gujarat riots. Photographs: Dinodia and Rick Rycroft / AP
Monarchies, fascism and communism have been discredited. Theocracies don’t have many takers. Roy, however, wonders whether democracy should be the “utopia that all developing societies aspire to”. Her political insight lags far behind her clever prose. Sample this: “What happens once democracy has been used up?” Used up? How? Then she continues, “What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse the process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?” What did it use to be? Weren’t democracies and free markets always compatible? Is this an activist’s cant or a writer’s rant?
Roy’s apocalyptic pitch continues: “Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?” So, what fascism and communism and feudalism couldn’t do, democracy might. The end of the world is nigh, thanks to democracy’s failings.
Democracy essentially means rule of the people. It is supposed to uproot hierarchies, open up opaque, closed systems and bring about social change through public pressure. In all these respects, India remains a work in progress. The country is still quite a distance from being a truly “liberal democracy” in which democracy extends from being a mere celebration of free and fair elections to a rule of law, and protection of rights to speech, religion, property and so on (Journalist Fareed Zakaria calls this “constitutional liberalism”). Also, it is common knowledge that democracy hasn’t always led to liberalism and elections don’t necessarily lead to more democracy—after all, Adolf Hitler was voted into power through free elections.
Democracies have often been imperfect, with rulers abusing power, undermining human rights, stoking intolerance, and promoting sectarianism and bigotry. It is surprising to see Roy writing off democracy because it is not delivering all the goods; this is hardly a revelation. Indian democracy is even more complex.
Listening to Grasshoppers: Hamish Hamilton, 252 pages, Rs499.
That said, there are no quibbles with some of the other issues Roy raises in this compilation of essays—many of them were written for newspapers and magazines as “urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India”. She writes about Kashmir, development and displacement, big dams, Maoist bush fires, horrific riots in Gujarat, reckless economic liberalization, the sentencing of Mohammad Afzal and judicial misconduct. India can sometimes be, to borrow Roy’s favourite phrase, quite a “deep state”. She talks about “redefining the meaning of politics” and rightly says that the “NGO-ization” of civil society only helps in depoliticizing society. And she dreams of an “elected shadow parliament”, though it is unclear how this is going to be achieved.
Roy confesses to writing many of the essays “in anger” and says that they have a common thread—“they are about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy; they are about the fire in the ducts”. Her anger is valid and valuable. Anger has almost gone out of writing in India; the dumbing down and emasculation of the mass media has ensured that. An increasingly delusional middle class believes that India is an emerging superpower, when all evidence on the ground points to the contrary. But for a writer, anger needs to be channelled and combined with original research and cogent understanding so that it doesn’t become a rant. By depending heavily on secondary sources and mixing up subjects and themes, Roy doesn’t reach the quality of, say, Naomi Klein, and her impeccably researched and searing studies into the dark heart of capitalism. Then there is confusion—27 pages of more than 250 endnotes for the book later, she says: “I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth?” Why should facts, marshalled properly and cross-checked, mask the truth? Jean Dreze’s work on the efficacy of the national rural employment guarantee scheme is an example of how fact-driven work can make authorities wake up and take notice.
To return to Roy’s main concern: democracy. To write it off is an insult to some of India’s unsung people who are using democracy’s gains and working tirelessly to make a difference to the lives of millions of Indians. As for the question of whether India is a democracy at all, nobody answers it as well as Ramachandra Guha. “The answer is well, phipty-phipty,” he writes. “However, that India is even a 50 per cent democracy flies in the face of tradition, history and the conventional wisdom.” Roy should not worry so much.
Soutik Biswas is India editor of the BBC News website.
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