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The battle for deeper democracy has begun: Ashutosh Varshney

Varshney speaks about the changing contours of Indian politics, the spectacular debut of AAP and the impact of growing urbanization on politics
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The battle for deeper democracy has begun: Ashutosh Varshney
Ashutosh Varshney says there is a centrist tendency in Indian politics and that is more pronounced at the national level than the state level. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
New Delhi: Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman professor of international studies and the social sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Brown-India Initiative. Varshney was in India recently for the release of his new book, Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy. In an interview, Varshney spoke on the changing contours of Indian politics, the spectacular debut of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the impact of growing urbanization on politics. Edited excerpts:
What do you make of AAP and its spectacular debut?
The best way to describe what AAP has done is to call it the birth of citizenship politics. Not only the fact that citizens elect their governments every five years, political parties have to also concentrate on the fact what happens between elections. This is going beyond identity politics, class politics and talking about the entitlement of citizens; citizenship comes with a set of rights in modern times. Indian democracy has done very well as an electoral phenomenon, but it has not done well between elections. And here what happens between elections has been bought into the elections. So this has transformative potential.
It has also turned the business of politics on its head by crowd sourcing funding and support and thereby working around the intimidating entry barriers of Indian politics. In that sense it also deepens Indian politics.
What has happened in India since independence itself is an achievement: at a low level of income, no democracy has survived for so long. If you look at today’s prices and think what India’s per capita income was in 1947, it is unlikely to be higher than $200. And so today, depending upon how you calculate, it is about $1,600 per capita. In this range, $200-1,600, no democracy in the history of the world has ever survived.
However, the running theme of the book is that a battle for deeper democracy has begun; and AAP is a good illustration of that.
AAP also signals that this country is still thirsty for a big idea. Is this an urban phenomenon or will it go pan-India?
No. This cannot be a pan-India phenomenon, certainly in the next election. Not only do you need an idea, you also need an organization. And beyond the organization also, a third step is needed—which is credibility of the people who are running the organization. So the first big issue that AAP has to sort out is whether it is going to run from India’s hundred-odd urban seats or from 543 constituencies...the funds required for running from 543 constituencies is now less of a problem for AAP, but creating an organization in all of those places and running a credible campaign is a more challenging issue.
In your book, you speak about parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that developed around special interest groups of caste and religion having to recalibrate themselves to win support. As a result they dilute their core ideology. How do these parties distinguish themselves from other centrist parties and do they get reduced to being regional players?
There is a centrist tendency in Indian politics; and that is more pronounced at the national level than the state level. So an ideologically pure left-wing or right-wing takeover is possible at the state level, but not the national level. In the 1990s, if you recall, there was great deal of anxiety that a very RSS-VHP (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad) centred Hindu nationalist takeover of Indian politics was possible. At that time, I made the claim that the possibility of something like that happening is very, very low. And any party that seeks to come to power in Delhi will have to make compromises and will have to move towards the centre.
What happened to the BJP was that it became right-of-centre and Congress became left-of-centre. Please note that Mr Modi’s (Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate) campaign so far has been devoid of anti-Muslim rhetoric. It should be noted that he has understood the logic of how to campaign at a national level; whatever he did in Gujarat that is not going to be translatable elsewhere—and if used will not bring political dividends. This is an example of the centrist trend of Indian politics.
Now regional parties can come to power at the regional level, but if they were to extend their reach then they will have to form a coalition. There is in theory a possible coalition of regional parties but they don’t have the same ideology. There has to be some ideological core. So, in the end, regional parties align with the BJP or the Congress party and they moderate the politics of both and get something in return; however, they do not get everything they want so you begin to get the bargains of democratic politics and a dilution of ideological positions on all sides.
Is India looking at a new structural faultline in its politics, or at the least an end to the business-as-usual approach?
Two issues here. One is the new demographic reality—an estimated 150 million first-time voters. And second is rising urbanism. So these two things are coming together. Typically, old-style politics is vote bank politics—which is to say if these set of castes vote for us then I as their representative will do the following. This kind of politics is very sectionally defined and is also typically identity based. So you get the so-called vote banks built around readily available social categories—and these are caste and religion.
Language was a readily available category till the 1950s; but the linguistic reorganization of the states undermined language as a source of great violence in Indian politics. So, of the four readily available social categories—language, caste, religion and tribe—tribe is confined to certain areas, caste is all over India, religion is all over India and language is regionally concentrated. So the explosive potential of language has been checked by giving each big language a home of its own.
Now with rising urbanism you also begin to get citizenship consciousness—which is to say if I am a citizen of India then I have a bundle of rights; I should not be hassled for (obtaining) my passport, driving licence and so on. These are citizenship politics issues. Typically in rural settings, you don’t play such politics.
So urbanism and the new demographic segments are creating new issues and AAP is plugging into it very well. The Congress and BJP will also have to respond to this because India may be 32% urban now but it will, in the next five years, be even more urban. While McKinsey projected that India would only be 40% urban in 2031 if you do the calculations slightly differently, specially include Census Towns, you could possible say that India will be 50% urban by 2025.
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