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14 September 2011, Gateway House

India’s democracy: Evolution, not Revolution

While India's anti-corruption upsurge lends further intensity to a global restlessness about the future of democracy, it also raises a significant question: What are the values that will foster a truly democratic culture? The answer will determine whether the on-going agitation will succeed in combating corruption

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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“Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion, such that it covers all the elements of the society and in the end makes itself irresistible.”

– M.K. Gandhi Harijan, 1946

“… the total revolution has to be peacefully brought about without impairing the democratic structure of society and affecting the democratic way of life of the people. …One of the unstated implications of such a satyagraha would be self-change: that is to say, those wanting to change must also change themselves before launching any kind of action.”

– Jayaprakash Narayan, Notes on Bihar Movement, 1975

As the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare gathered momentum over the past few months, many have asked: how Gandhian is this movement?

On the world stage it may not matter whether or not Anna Hazare and his colleagues live up to the details of Gandhi’s legacy. In any case there is no point in setting up Gandhi as a supreme ideal that all future endeavors must be measured against.

However, our anti-corruption upsurge does lend a further intensity to a global restlessness about the future of democracy – not just as a system of participative governance but as a way of life.

What are the values that will foster a truly democratic culture? This is the question that really matters and is more important than whether or not the on-going agitation will succeed in pushing back corruption.

Gandhian methods offer no ready-made answers, even if they are applied with the best of intentions. That is because Gandhi’s example, with all the creativity of his experiments, is a combination of inspiration, challenge and burden. Exploring each of these dimensions may help us to keep refining the key question and find answers that are compatible with contemporary complexity.

Burden, Challenge, Inspiration: Then

It is perhaps the most moving scene of Richard Attenbourgh’s film Gandhi. The year is 1947. All hell is breaking loose as communal violence ravages many parts of India. Gandhi, weakened by fasting aimed at stopping the violence, is lying on a cot on the terrace of a house in Calcutta.  Hindu and Muslim combatants are somberly filing past as they lay down their weapons in Gandhi’s presence.

Suddenly a wild-eyed man, Nathu, bursts upon the scene and flings a roti at Gandhi. “EAT!” he shouts, “I might go to hell for what I’ve done, but I don’t want the guilt of your death on my head.”  Nathu’s pain and anger fill the moment. With a belligerent defiance Nathu tells Gandhi that he killed a boy, a Muslim boy, by dashing his head against the wall.

Gandhi winces in pain. Nathu continues that he did so because they (the Muslims) killed his little boy. And then, in the face of Gandhi’s quiet empathy, Nathu breaks down.

Gandhi’s answer for the man’s unbearable grief is that he find a Muslim boy whose parents have been killed and bring him up as he would his own son. Be sure, adds Gandhi, to bring him up as a devout Muslim even though you are a Hindu.

This sentiment was savagely rejected by the millions who continued the carnage that accompanied the birth of Independent India and Pakistan. The historical being, depicted in that scene, died a failed man.

Gandhi insisted that his fasts were a means of self-purification and not an imposition on anyone. But that was often not how those on the other side experienced them.  One particular fast by Gandhi had repercussions that haunt us to this day.

In 1932 Gandhi went on a fast onto death to oppose separate electorates for untouchables whom he lovingly called “Harijans.” Gandhi felt that separate electorates for ‘depressed castes’ would cause Hindu society to disintegrate. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of the lower castes, felt that separate electorates were a critical step towards correcting historical injustices.

A mass popular upsurge arose across India in support of Gandhi’s position, driven partly by the fear that Gandhi might actually die if his formula was not accepted.  Eventually this compelled Ambedkar to relent. The result was an agreement, known as the Yervada Pact (also known as the Poona Pact) which gave Dalits reserved seats but not separate electorates.

Three generations later, much of the Dalit bitterness towards Gandhi and his philosophy, is traced back to that fast which they recall as a form of coercion. They view Gandhi as deploying his popular appeal to undermine Ambedkar’s vision for liberating Dalits.

In various forums where I have had an opportunity to discuss this matter with Dalit youth I have tried to explain that Gandhi’s stand was based on a lofty vision of inter-caste unity. But they perceive this as my upper-caste pro-Gandhi bias. So together we experience Gandhi’s fast and the resulting Yervada Pact as a historical burden.[i]

Attempting to overcome this barrier takes us to the challenge dimension of Gandhi’s legacy. This requires us to look behind the specific actions and events associated with the historical Gandhi – to grasp the underlying insights and aspirations. As his biographer, Louis Fischer wrote: “Gandhi fasted not for anybody or against anybody, but for a creative idea.”[ii]

The most fundamental creative idea with which Gandhi experimented was self-critical introspection – the faculty for constantly re-examining one’s own motives and methods. Then the opponent need not be encountered or experienced as an offensive ‘other’ but as someone who, just like oneself, has the potential for critical self-reflection and thus can evolve to higher levels of consciousness and action.

Therefore, Satyagraha is fundamentally an inward challenge. Physical non-violence is its bare minimum component. Its objective is not the ascendancy of any one formula or solution but empowerment of the search for multi-shaded truths. It is this search for truth that is to be made “irresistible” – not the force of a demand backed by large numbers. And this endeavor is, above all, an antidote to intolerance and any inclination to paint a black-and-white picture of reality. Even if the injustice being resisted is an area of deep darkness, those responsible for it need not be condemned as evil. It is a moral action against the sin, not the sinner.

Perhaps this is why Gandhi spent one of his post-satyagraha jail terms in South Africa making a pair of leather sandals for General Jan Smuts, the man who had put him behind bars. Such love-thy-opponent gestures seem saintly to most people. So it is more important to understand the very human, and do-able, qualities which were the source of Gandhi’s values. Fisher noted that Gandhi had a way of thinking aloud so as to reveal each step in his thinking.  Since you heard not merely words but a sequence of thoughts it was possible to yourself see the conclusion emerge: “This prevented him from talking like a propagandist; he talked like a friend. He was interested in an exchange of views, but much more in the establishment of a personal relationship.”[iii]

Stories from the past need not have a literal relevance today. They are narrated here as a path-finder light that might be
more helpful than the photo of Gandhi which was used as the backdrop for the stage at Ramlila Maidan.

Let us now explore what is our contemporary combination of burden, challenge, inspiration. What do the experiences of the anti-corruption mobilization teach us about fostering a democratic culture in everyday life?


Burden, Challenge, Inspiration: Now

We are hard-wired to admire self-sacrifice, particularly fasting, for a higher cause. This is why Anna Hazare’s fast was chosen to serve as the fulcrum of the anti-corruption campaign.  It was the surest way to generate mass popular support for an issue on which no one can publicly disagree – the need to stop corruption.

But fasting as a means for fulfilling a specific demand – in this case the insistence that a particular draft of a bill to be made into law by a particular deadline – is clearly not conducive to fostering a democratic culture. The dangers and burden of this might have even have more grave implications than the ramifications of the Yervada Pact which continues to handicap inter-caste dialog four generations later.

It could be argued that Hazare’s fast is free of such dangers because there is a universal acceptance of the need to fight corruption. The ‘other side’ in this situation is the government, and perhaps all political parties. It is assumed that they are bound to subvert any legislation that might make it impossible for them to siphon public funds in the future. So how could defeating them have any negative repercussions?

One, this approach poses a practical problem. A hastily steered bill may lead to a poor quality legislation that would send us from frying pan to fire. Advocates of the agitation argue that the Jan Lokpal draft is well-considered and carefully designed by highly-qualified professionals. But this reasoning does not address the fears of those who believe the Jan Lokpal could become a super-cop institution that will skew, not improve, the balance of power.

Two, there is a problem in principle. Even if the issue at hand is legitimate, should a group of people, backed by a mass upsurge, be allowed to push through their version of a solution? True, parliamentary mechanisms are in need of improvement. But they are not as dysfunctional as many supporters of the agitation seem to believe. And even the dysfunctions can only be made worse by substituting due process with either the moral or tactical force of enraged public sentiment.

Three, the agitation tapped into a long-prevalent loathing of politicians. Again, there is an objective basis for this. When elected representatives fail us there is a legitimate feeling of betrayal. Thus the outrage about big ticket corruption is fully understandable. But that is not a sufficient basis to paint the entire political class as ‘evil’ and then identify ourselves as their victims. To claim, as has been done by some agitators, that we have been ‘betrayed’ for 60 years is at best ignorance and at worst it is false propaganda.

What remained on the fringes of media hype were the voices of other veteran political activists who were drawing attention to how various acts of Parliament have created mechanisms of accountability in everyday life. Over the last 64 years we have created various ways to make democracy more meaningful at the grassroots. The Right to Information (RTI) movement, backed by the RTI Act, and strengthening of Panchayati Raj institutions, through actions of Parliament, have enabled local communities to be better informed and take responsibility for last-step governance.

As the agitation at Ramlila Maidan came to a close, Arvind Khejriwal, the movement’s main architect, said that it was never their intention to claim that all politicians are evil. The truth of this vital disclaimer was also manifest at high points of the televised Parliamentary debate which preceded the passage of a resolution on key points of agreement on the Lokpal Bill. It was following this Parliamentary resolution that Hazare’s fast was called off on a note of victory.[iv]

Four, once sources of corruption are located outside us entirely, in some ‘other,’ we are just a step away from intolerance. Those who questioned the Hazare version of the solution have been denounced as traitors in banners at Ramlila Maidan and other protest locations. Some, like Aruna Roy, an architect of the Right to Information law who has been critical of the Hazare draft of the Lokpal Bill,  have also been bombarded with vicious hate-mail. The immediate passage of a law creating the institution of a Lokpal may or may not help us wipe out corruption – but intolerance of opposing views will undermine  democratic culture. For democratic culture depends on open engagement with multiple perspectives and a willingness to be critiqued. But emotions were at such a fever pitch during the agitation that those who challenged the agitation’s tactics were denounced for denigrating “people’s power.”

It should be possible to celebrate the fact that lakhs of people have come out on the streets to speak truth to power and yet also question some characteristics of this mobilization. Otherwise there is an implicit danger of those mobilized behaving like a revolutionary vanguard which treats all critics as counter-revolutionary.

What then are the challenges ahead, post Hazare’s fast? How will the search for multiple dimensional truths become irresistible? Let us turn to some scenes from everyday life, which have not been in the limelight.

As the anti-corruption protest at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi gathered momentum in August, people across India spontaneously came out onto the streets to march peacefully demanding an end to corruption. Even the small town of Akluj, in Maharashtra, witnessed a candle-light march. Since Akluj has become a rural medical hub over the last two decades most of the protesters were doctors. But one of the most senior and respected doctors of Akluj was conspicuously absent from the rally.

What is the point of marching against corruption, he asked, unless the doctors are themselves willing to stop manipulating patients by performing unnecessary tests and operations? He also pointed out that most of the participants in that march declare only a small portion of their income to the tax department.

This particular  doctor pays tens of lakhs every year as income tax. He is also the one most consistently harassed by the tax authorities. The local taxman seems to resent the doctor’s insistence on putting large sums of money into the government’s coffers. The other doctors offer the taxman a win-win deal – they get to keep more of what they earn by paying a relatively smaller amount to tax official’s personal coffers.

Another doctor, this one in Mumbai, raised the same challenge to his collegues. In an article published by, on August 29th, 2011, titled Team Anna: What about medical corruption? , Dr. Sanjay Nagral reported that a doctor convicted of corruption by lower courts not only survived in the profession for a decade but rose to become the President of the Indian Medical Council “due to a certain permissiveness of his constituency and peers.” It was only in 2010 that the guilty doctor was removed from office and is now in jail pending trial.[v]

“It is easier and safer for a professional to symbolically identify with the Hazare movement but much more challenging and daring to question internal corruption at ones workplace,” wrote Dr. Nagral, a surgeon at Mumbai’s  Jaslok Hospital. “When the dust and noise of the spectacular settles it may be worth remembering to turn our gaze inwards” he concluded.

An old man living in a Delhi slum expressed  the same sentiment at a basti-level anti-corruption meeting shortly after Hazare’s earlier fast in April.  A veteran political activist, attending the same meeting, had just given a rousing speech on the global imbalance of power between ‘people’ on one side and corrupt politicians and corporations on the other. That may be so, said the old man, but Hazare’s campaign has also reminded us that doing the right thing and being successful is often not the same thing. For too long now, most of us have not worried about doing the right thing as long as we get what we want. If this is to change, we must all change.

It may not be fair to look for evidence of self-critical introspection amid the euphoria of collective protest, on the streets and at Ramlila Maidan. Mass action tends to require some simplification of issues, a sharply focused demand and a clearly visible opponent.

But such introspection is the key challenge on the road ahead. Its absence might imperil both the struggle against corruption and India’s  democratic culture. It is dangerous to assume that if big-ticket corruption of elected representatives and government functionaries is tackled, the rest of society will somehow fall in line because the source of the problem is at the top.

Moreover, rapidly identifying  and punishing  offenders – at any level of government or in any profession – is a necessary but far from sufficient condition. Yes, modern parliamentary democracy needs to rely heavily on effective implementation of rule of law. Indeed there is urgent need to press for this and normalize the functioning of institutions in India.  But surely deterrent punishment cannot be the basis, the foundation, of a society worth living in.

The limitations of deterrent punishment as a means of changing erroneous behavior were  poignantly and creatively illustrated by the closing moment of the agitation. Hazare’s decision to break his fast by accepting a glass of fresh coconut water from two little girls was an important act of political symbolism in a country where the female sex ratio has been steadily declining.

Laws making sex-selection abortions a criminal offence were enacted almost two decades ago. Government policies favoring the girl child are aplenty. But as the census of 2010 showed the gender ratio is still skewed – 940 women for every 1000 men. In the 0 to 6 age group the ratio is much worse – 914 girls to every 1000 boys. Clearly the proportion of females in the population is not going to be secured as much through laws and policing measures as it could be by social renewal. It might be the same with corruption.

Many anti-corruption policing measures already exist. There is clearly need for refining these existing measures and even creating some new ones. But in a society where subversion of policing measures, by the public at large not just powers-that-be, has become a highly developed skill there may be no substitute for a social processes that fosters voluntary compliance with rules.

What then are our sources of inspiration in the present?

The first and most obvious source is the determination, by a wide cross section of society,to speak truth to power by saying ‘enough is enough’ — corruption will not be tolerated. The power of this ethical energy is not diminished by  the darker elements of the flag waving crowds whose cheering for “Team Anna” could not be distinguished from their jingoistic cheering of the Indian cricket team.

It is vital to celebrate the  quieter off-camera fervor to confront an unresponsive government. It’s most startling manifestation may have been families who brought their children to tumultuous street events – apparently with full confidence that the protest would not turn violent. Some of these were people who wanted their children to have a first-hand experience of grassroots politics.

Some of these passionate protestors were uncomfortable with the more demagogic elements at Ramlila Maidan. For instance, the slogan “Anna is India, India is Anna”.  Some supporters of the agitation did made a distinction between confronting a government and undermining constitutionally established procedures.

There is no way of knowing how many people who spontaneously supported Hazare’s fast took his exhortations for ‘good conduct’ and sacrifice to heart.

But one of the most inspiring interventions came from yet another doctor.

At the height of Hazare’s fast Dr. T.P. Lahane, Dean of J.J. Hospital, Maharashtra’s largest public hospital, found that many of his resident doctors were planning to join a public demonstration in support of the agitation. Dr. Lahane called all the young doctors for a discussion and asked them to consider if marching in support of Hazare’s fast was enough.

That dialog led to the doctors taking an inward focused pledge. They swore not to support female feticide, not to take commissions from hospitals for referring patients, not to seek commission from pharmaceutical companies, not charge patients at a public hospital, not give preference to rich patients over poor patients.

A cynic might argue that pledges are easily broken. So what? Even if every last doctor who signed that pledge does not honor its letter and spirit the reiteration of the values is signigicant.  Dr. Lahane’s dialog and the resulting pledge are a dynamic form of satyagraha because it involved “educating public opinion” about the values that need to be made irresistible.

This quality of introspection, of taking full responsibility for your immediate domain of action, might be the core value for a truly democratic culture. This way you seek to change the top by revitalizing the grassroots. You strengthen the struggle against corruption at the top by first bringing change in your own professional and social life. Tolerance and respecting the dignity of all, particularly of those who disagree with us, tends to  follow from this commitment to being the change you want to see.

None of the above may accrue from a policing- based reduction of corruption or a ‘people’s power’ that has such contempt for institutions. It is important to acknowledge what does work and not sweepingly, erroneously, denounce institutions as dysfunctional.

Let us not be distracted by the fact that a slow, insidious, morally anchored process of change seems dull compared to the heated drama of people’s power spilling over in the streets. Contrary to popular belief this is not the first-ever mass upsurge against corruption.

It was at the same Ramlila Maidan, in June 1975, that Gandhian social worker Jayprakash Narayan (JP) addressed a crowd of over 100,000 people protesting against Indira Gandhi’s corrupt government. It was JP’s last public meeting before the Emergency was declared and JP along with most opposition leaders landed in jail. Some of the young people who were politicized by the JP Movement went on to become major political figures accused of large scale corruption – notably Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav.

This does not mean that those protests were futile. As more and more people across the world pay close attention to India’s on-going struggle to build a more effective and truly representative democracy it will be vital to understand why protests were a relatively small part of JP’s concept of “Total Revolution.”  Like Gandhi, JP visualized true democracy as depending upon a sustained and ceaseless evolution of social and moral energies.

Gandhi himself evolved to the extent of forgiving and embracing murders, as depicted in that scene from Attenborough’s film. We are not required to ‘follow’ Gandhi – either literally or metaphorically.  But his composite legacy – of both burden and inspiration – can be a light on the p
ath ahead.

Yes, lives are partly improved by winning on specific demands for laws that compel the powerful to be more accountable. That is vital. But the evolution may depend on devising ways of converting outrage into well-directed purpose and brashness into a courage that is respectful of different ways of reaching the same goal.

Rajni Bakshi is Fellow, Gandhi Peace Studies, Gateway House.                       

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[ii] The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, Harper and Row, New York, Paperback edition 1983, p. 156

[iii]  My week with Gandhi’ in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, Harper Colophon Books, 1950

[iv] “How to get to know Parliament” by Rajni Bakshi, 5th September, 2011

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