The Telegraph
Friday , September 21 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Democracy and its institutions
By André Béteille,
Oxford, Rs 595

Indian democracy functions but does it work as well as it should or could? This question is embedded within an even bigger question. Has democracy in India failed to live up to the ideals of democracy? André Béteille, India’s leading social anthropologist, addresses these questions in his new book.

Béteille is one of the rare Indian social scientists who has straddled with ease the two worlds, often opposed to each other, of scholarship and writing for a wider audience. He has written essays regularly for newspapers in India but his forays into Grub Street have never resulted in any dilution of intellectual content. He has always stated his analysis and views with great clarity and occasionally against the grain of conventional wisdom and politics. Béteille does not quite like to be described as a public intellectual but it cannot be denied that this mantle, despite his efforts to avoid it, has descended on him.

In these essays Béteille looks at those institutions that are closely linked with the working of the state. Thus in this book the institutions are more emphasized than the ideals of democracy. This emphasis should not be misconstrued. As a sociologist, he is more inclined to study institutions “than with reflections on ideals in themselves.’’ This approach has an advantage. It enables Béteille to analyse the divergence between the ideal and practice.

The divergence can be traced in the contradictions inherent in two parallel sets of principles: one, is between constitutional democracy and populist democracy; and the other is between the rule of law and the rule of numbers.

The procedures of democracy and how the principal institutions of democracy should function are laid down in the Constitution of India. But these procedures and the proper functioning of institutions — both are essential elements of a constitutional order — often come into conflict with the assertions of “the people’’.

Political parties because they pursue number often encourage such conflict. Witness the disruption of parliament. Thus the rule of numbers runs against the rule of law.

Béteille’s sympathies are not difficult to discern. He is against what Ambedkar so memorably called the “grammar of anarchy’’. But as an observer and analyst of Indian social realities he knows that democracy in India will be stalked, perhaps perennially, by the tension emanating from the assertions of “the people’’ and the ideals of democracy. This might force us to think about Indian democracy, as distinct from democracy in India. The practice of Indian democracy could be bereft of some of the aspects that the Westminster model takes for granted.