Your copy of sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s new book is scored with pencil marks and marginalia: “philosophical” says one scribble, “the veil and France’s history of laicite” murmers another, and “VP Singh!” exclaims a third.
Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite
By Dipankar Gupta
Rs. 495 pp 225
Your copy of sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s new book is scored with pencil marks and marginalia: “philosophical” says one scribble, “the veil and France’s history of laicite” murmers another, and “VP Singh!” exclaims a third. When you couldn’t stop disfiguring the book, you knew you had to immediately call on the writer at his home in a verdant Delhi bylane.
Gupta is a great conversationalist, who speaks exactly like he writes — concisely, coherently, and with a wealth of anecdote thrown in. You learn about his early work on Bal Thackeray and the emergence of the Shiv Sena, about how he was caught in a fight between the Dalit Panthers and the SS at Mumbai’s BDD Chawl back in 1973, about his initial enthusiasm for Anna Hazare, and his views on Arvind Kejriwal (“Kejriwal, a member of the citizen elite? No. He could have been, but…”).
It’s clear that the events of the last couple of years have led Gupta to think deeply about what constitutes a true democracy. He was reading about the subject when it occurred to him that many developments associated with democracy across the world grew out of the initiatives of individuals who often had much to lose materially as a result of their convictions.
“I was led to believe by teachers, books and colleagues that the great developments that we are now resting on came about because of popular pressure from below. To my surprise, I found that was not really the case,” he says referring to instances as diverse as Robert Peel repealing the Corn Laws in UK in 1846, supporters of the US civil rights movement, Gandhi and the anti-untouchability movement, and Nehru and the Hindu code bill.
“None of these were because of popular pressure and yet, because we have them, we can call ourselves a democracy,” he says pointing out that the “intervention of certain people who often lost elections but stuck to their guns” played a large role. A conversation on the subject with the former Spanish ambassador in India led to an invitation to visit the Basque country, which, since 1980, has been transformed from a poor, insurgency-ridden part of Spain to its most impressive region. Talking to people in public life in Basque led Gupta to clarify his ideas. “They said, ‘We did what we thought was right and we asked the voters to judge us,’” he says.
That idea would scare the average Indian politician, who Gupta notes, is preoccupied with the “politics of the given”. The visit convinced him that India too could change if its leadership acted on principle. This, he believes would lead to a greater focus on the things that matter: the delivery of universal health and education, the formalisation of the labour force and the implementation of urbanization policies. Gupta, who believes India squandered the chances presented by the booming 2000s to invest specifically in health and education, hopes this book will make “people like us” think about universal health and education and eventually change the political agenda.
Unsurprisingly, though Gupta has “sung this song to a large number of people who are in active politics” all of them are petrified at the idea of displeasing the electorate. “If you just think of votes, when will you think of forward-looking policies?” he wonders. “Unless you put in place that which we’ve not experienced, voters will just keep reconfirming the old path,” says Gupta who is a thought-provoking writer mainly because he presents fresh insights into the issues that Indians never tire of discussing on television, on social media, and at the neighbourhood chai shop. You could go on talking to him about uniquely Indian obsessions like the caste system (“Many people are working on getting caste out of their heads. They’re wasting their time because human beings are basically bad. What we need to do is make it impossible for people to express caste in ways which are anti-citizenship.”), about Modi and the Congress (“In Gujarat, the Congress is sloshing about with anti-communalism. You can’t do that; you have to deliver secular goods.”), and about how our democracy falls short (“The rule of law is universal in a democracy and status of citizenship is universal in a democracy.”), but what you’d really like to know are his views on the best conditions for a citizen elite to appear. “There isn’t one basis that I could find which could tell me when and where the citizen elite would rule. If the evidence was logical we could say this and this would lead to that, but I didn’t find it, so then it’s a random thing,” he says. For the nation’s sake, you hope the time’s right for the emergence of that rare and random breed, the new Indian citizen elite.