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WRONG AT THE TOP

- On idealizing the notion of the people

When the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi decided to consult the “people” on whether it should form a government with Congress support, this was generally lauded as a new brand of honest politics, instead of being criticized as exhibiting poverty and indecisiveness of its leadership. Many saw in it an attempt to break with the top-down approach that has characterized the distribution of power in the Indian polity and is supposed to spawn authoritarianism and corruption.

A similar opposition to the top-down approach has often informed arguments in favour of the devolution of resources and power to panchayats: they being closer to the people, such devolution is seen as representing a deepening of democracy. Of course, these two instances are different, since the panchayats are elected bodies under the Constitution, to whom such devolution must be made, while the people consulted by the AAP in the mohallas have no particular locus standi. But what is common between these two cases is the invoking of the people to criticize a top-down approach, or, put differently, to pose a dichotomy between the people as they are and the centre of power.

This view that the top-down approach should be eschewed and the people, as they are, should be entrusted with decision-making, is based on flawed thinking. It idealizes the people as they are, and sees them as a pure and undifferentiated mass that is entirely a repository of virtue. In fact, however, the people in their empirical state of existence, are neither pure, nor pristine, nor homogeneous, nor free of the web of local-level power relationships. Consulting the people under these circumstances amounts to bowing before these power relationships; apotheosizing the people under these circumstances amounts to glorifying these relationships; and the decentralization of power and resources under these circumstances results not in an elimination of corruption, or even necessarily in a reduction in its level, but rather in a decentralization of corruption.

Some would say that this is still better than the power-at-the-top situation. But even if this position is accepted for argument’s sake, it is nevertheless a far cry from clean politics. What is more, in a very crucial sense, it is not even true. The power relationships that exist among the people in their empirical existence, encompass caste oppression, gender oppression, the smothering of individual freedom, and the subversion of the freedom of choice. In short, they are suffused with the legacy of our oppressive caste-based feudal system. There can be no progress towards democracy unless that legacy is eliminated, just as there can be no progress unless a struggle is waged against the constriction of democracy by the operation of neo-liberal capitalism. Empowering the people in their empirical existence, under the illusion that what empirically exists is a homogeneous and pure category, can serve to refurbish these power relationships. It can entail inter alia an endorsing of khap panchayats and honour killings that constitute a negation of democracy.

In fact, one can go further. Unconstrained empowerment of the people as they are, on the premise that the more they are empowered the better it is for democracy, is not just problematic; it is actually retrograde. Just as Lenin had argued that socialism had to be brought to the proletariat from outside by introducing into its consciousness a theoretical perspective that is not spontaneously generated from within the quotidian struggle of the workers, likewise the idea of democracy has to be brought to the people from outside, whence it follows that this idea reaches the top first before it begins to percolate down. The top, therefore, is likely at any time to be more of a location of democratic ideas and consciousness, within of course an overall democratic polity, than the bottom; weakening the top in the name of combating the top-down approach is likely to weaken the struggle for democracy.

To say this is not to ignore the fact that since education, and hence theory, has historically been confined to an upper-caste elite, privileging the top, amounts to keeping intact the stranglehold of this elite on the social and political life of the country. But the fact of education also creates among this elite dissonant voices, including voices that speak out for equality; such voices are far more scarce and far less powerful at the bottom.

It follows that a mere mechanical empowering of panchayats or mohalla committees or what have you, is fraught with danger for democracy. And when these institutions at the bottom are not even elected bodies, when their constitution has not even been popularly mandated through any electoral exercise, the danger is all the greater. Ambedkar, one should recall, had serious misgivings even with regard to the decentralization of power to elected local-level bodies, for he saw the village as the primary location of the oppression of the Dalits. His misgivings were amply justified.

The point of my argument is not to oppose the decentralization of power to the people. But the people in question here must be, not people in their empirical existence, but people in the process of transcending their empirical existence; not people in stasis but people in movement; not people entrapped within local power relationships but people struggling against such relationships; not people filled with the consciousness inherited from the caste-based feudal society, but people in the process of going beyond that consciousness and reaching out via theory to a democratic consciousness. Merely bringing about a decentralization of decision-making without at the same time struggling to move people out of their stasis, which also entails bringing theory to them, constitutes not a strengthening but on the contrary an attenuation of democracy.

There is an additional point here. It is not only the legacy of the feudal past that afflicts the people; the capitalist present, too, affects their lives profoundly, and manipulates their consciousness in a myriad ways. Communal riots, for example, as numerous instances from Moradabad to Gujarat show, are engineered as part of a capitalist drive to acquire “for a song” the land and property of the minority community; and to this end, communal ideology is sought to be injected into the consciousness of the people. This further underscores the danger of the unrestrained empowering of the people as they are.

The apotheosis of the people as they are was never part of the thinking of the leaders of the national movement, and nothing illustrates this better than Gandhi’s withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement after the Chauri Chaura incident. Implicit in that withdrawal is the view that the people’s existing consciousness has to be struggled against, even when they happen to be engaged in a movement; that far from idealizing the people in stasis, it is essential to critique them even when they are in movement, if that movement is still circumscribed by a consciousness embedded in the stasis — that is, by a non-theoretical consciousness.

The Left, which has been committed to democratic decentralization, and which has played a stellar role in carrying it forward in states where it has been in power, has never seen it as mere handing over of power to the people as they are. For instance, E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s argument in the context of Kerala had been as follows: since Kerala, which has broken the jenmi system and landlords’ power, has also got a plethora of mass organizations of peasants, agricultural labourers, toddy tappers, fishermen and other segments of the poor, going right down to the village level, democratic decentralization in Kerala was on the agenda for empowering the people. The premise of his argument had been a cognition of the people in movement. It is this fact of their being in movement which would ensure, he believed, that decentralization became not a strengthening of the old or new power relationships, but a strengthening, instead, of the movement of the people.

It may be argued that the very fact of the decentralization of power to the people as they are, can give rise to their movement; decentralization itself can be the start of a new dialectic. But the point is that such a dialectic need not be in the direction of strengthening democracy. And even if it disrupts, rather than strengthening, the pre-existing power relationships, it may give rise to new, alternative power relationships that are no less anti-democratic.

This does not mean that democratic decentralization must wait until the people have begun to move, have become part of a struggle that interrogates anti-democratic consciousness. What it means is that such decentralization, when it occurs, must be hemmed in with safeguards. The proposition that the more power is handed to the people as they are, the better it is for democracy, is wrong.