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Democracy & citizen elites

A visit to Basque Country in Spain changed his idea of democracy forever, academician and writer Dipankar Gupta said at a discussion on his book, Revolution from Above, for Bengal Club Library Talk, in association with The Telegraph, on Friday.

“I was not planning to write this book, but changed my mind when I went to Basque Country in Spain. I realised perhaps I had got the essence of democracy all wrong,” Gupta said. “A lot of changes take place not because of popular pressure from below but because of elite intervention from above.”

Gupta went on to explain how the province that had once reeled under fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s rule managed to rise and carve out a niche for itself with the help of new leaders, many of who were citizen elites who opted for change rather than a comfortable and cushioned life.

“I spoke to some leaders in Basque and came to the conclusion that a good democrat is one who does what he or she thinks is right. No true leader listens to others. They have their own vision,” he said.

Enriched by his experience in Basque, Gupta drew a parallel with some Indian leaders who dared to be different despite peer pressure. He cited the example of Gandhi who went against the tide and tried to do away with untouchability. “If he was a people’s man, he would not have spoken so strongly against untouchability in that era,” the author said.

Similarly, Nehru, despite Gupta’s reservations against some of his views, dared to speak out against religious tags for educational institutions (like Aligarh Muslim University and Benaras Hindu University). “Will any current politician dare to speak out in that vein?” Gupta wondered.

“Democracy is not an easy project. It centralises and thrives on fraternity and citizen elites are those who can bring about these significant changes if they go beyond popular opinion,” said the author.

Sharing his plan for a progressive nation, Gupta said: “Universal health and universal education are the key.... Many countries (like Sweden and Austria) have tried to introduce such social welfare schemes when they were at their poorest. In India, I am often told there is not enough money for it. But democracy is not about reflecting reality but about breaking the mould.”

The discussion was moderated by Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph.