Looking back at 2009, the most “revolutionary” event in India probably occurred in Gujarat when chief minister Narendra Modi’s government made voting compulsory in local bodies last month. “Revolutionary” not because Gujarat is the first to do so (Belgium has that honour in the modern world), but rather because this idea may be fundamentally incompatible with modern democracy.
“Revolution” means many things to many people, though it remains synonymous with general change. Yet, for a phrase so fraught with political overtones, this general meaning misses its essence. It took the German émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt to remind the modern world, in her On Revolution (1963), what a political phrase borrowed from astronomy meant: Like a planet in orbit that returns to its origin, a society or nation in revolution essentially is returning to its original status.
No, that doesn’t mean Gujarat is going back to the Vedic times (as much as Modi-types may enjoy the thought). Modern Indian democracy—whatever the post-colonial historians say—isn’t exactly indigenous; its idea and culture has some Western root. So, we’d need to examine the original status of Western democracy, most specifically a series of events that started in 1789 with a tennis court oath and ended with a large European nation with a midget on the throne.
For us, the French Revolution may be the Holy Grail of philosophical and historical inquiry into the nature of government, but its theorists were instead obsessed with the philosophy and history behind pre-Christian government. Thus France, for a little while, spun back to an era whose sense of rights and duties had to be reaffirmed through France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and whose sense of virtue had to be recaptured in the Revolution’s Republic of Virtue. The purity of Sparta, the morality of Rome, or the equity of Athens: that was the original state of democratic nature.
But Rome or Sparta weren’t model democracies—rather, it was Athens. This city-state became what we can call a democracy around 509 BC, where those who could vote—too bad for women and slaves—must do so. Historians speak of a rope dyed red with which eligible voters were herded from the Athenian marketplace to the assembly, apathetic voters—whose robes would be stained red as they resisted the rope—facing threat of penalty.
Even if we assume this worked for ancient Athens, does it mean it will work in modern France or India? French classical liberals in the 19th century, reflecting on the Revolution’s excesses, were apprehensive. In an 1816 speech called “The Liberty of Ancients compared with that of Moderns”, Benjamin Constant highlighted three differences that ought to change the way modern citizens exercise their political liberties.
First, “the size of a country causes a corresponding decrease of the political importance allotted to each individual. The most obscure republican of Sparta or Rome had power”. Compared with one vote among 6,000 in Athens, one vote out of around 700 million in India has little effect. Second, “the abolition of slavery has deprived the free population of all the leisure which resulted from the fact that slaves took care of most of the work”. Plato could spend all his time pondering over the good life, but we have to catch the train to go to work. Third, the fundamental activity for moderns is commerce; for the ancients, it was war—a source of wealth that made citizens eager about politics. But, “commerce does not, like war, leave in men’s lives intervals of inactivity”: There is no time now for the debates that Athenian citizens would have had before declaring war. Fourth, this “commerce inspires in men a vivid love of individual independence”. We don’t like the collective to tell us what to do.
This perhaps explains why most of the fantastic experiments the French Revolution’s theorists launched backfired in a large nation with lots of modern activity. In the realm of voting rights, they only went as far as to allow non-propertied men to vote (a big deal then). Even though some theorists favoured voting as a duty, they never reached that point. Perhaps because, by 1794, the Revolution met its own Thermidorean reaction.
Will Gujarat’s experiment, which seems to have been launched to bring about some kind of return to these similar ideals of democratic purity and virtue, backfire too?
Abheek Bhattacharya is assistant editor (Views pages) at Mint. Comment at email@example.com