The year of living angrily

Was 2011 a year of democratic splendour, or a year of democratic squalor? The latter term is not often used. But if you asked Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, he would not hesitate to use it for India.

How else, he would say, can one characterise a year whose key features were as follows: a democratically elected Parliament spent more time adjourning legislative proceedings than participating in them; non-elected civil society activists threatened to take over legislation from those elected to make laws; farm unrest made it virtually impossible for industrialists to acquire land for industrialisation, something India badly needs; protests forced the government to put on hold a much-needed reform of retail trade that would have benefited millions of farmers and consumers.

Viewed from a different prism, however, the same events, with the exception of parliamentary adjournments, would qualify as splendid democratic victories. Protests against unwelcome government policies, or against the misconduct of rulers, are entirely democratic. Democracy cannot be equated with elections alone: elections are necessary, not sufficient. Whether citizens can check governmental authority between elections is a significant indicator of a polity's democratic health.

Using democratic modes, three different groups rebelled this year: the urban middle class against corruption, farmers against land acquisition, traders against reform of retail. All three groups are numerically large. On the domestic front, the Central government remained paralysed for much of the year. Even when the government tried to break the logjam, it would move forward only to pull back. This can be read as a narrative of government bowing to citizen preferences. What could be more democratic?

Each of the two narratives above contains an element of truth, but neither is entirely adequate. To understand some of the underlying dynamics of Indian democracy today, we need to put it in the context of post-1991 realities. India's democracy now coexists with rising capitalism. Serious tensions between democracy and markets have by now emerged. That is what produced the anger of 2011. That is why the government is paralysed.

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