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August 23, 2013

Democracy and the role of citizen elite

To uplift each and every citizen, the citizen elite should consciously attack the impediments and constantly engage with the state policies.

dipankar guptaShould democracy be a mere reflection of the will of the people or should it be shaped by individuals with a vision towards attainment of greater fraternity and common citizenship? In his latest book Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite, Dipankar Gupta provides a compelling argument for the latter. He calls the individuals who take this mantle of shaping democracy as “citizen elite” or “elite of calling”. If democracy is viewed only as a reflection of the given, then it will eventually get caught up in the forces of inertia and restrict the imagination of the leaders to be aspirational. In the contemporary political scenario where retrograde concessions are enforced to appease identities and restrictions on individual freedom are justified as political realities, the need for the citizen elite who can bridge the barriers of multiple identities and foster common citizenship is a refreshing argument.

Professor Gupta gives many examples of how the citizen elite transformed developed countries. In India, Gandhi was a citizen elite who challenged the status quo using his own distinctive methods to give India a modern, liberal democratic state. Gandhi’s influence pervaded the nature of our constitution. “Gandhi who has always been prompting us to be modern, secular and democratic even if the bulk of us were looking the other way. Gandhi forced us to reject untouchability, embrace fraternity, protect minority rights, give equal space to women, and question unchecked industrialization… Without Gandhi, India may well have become independent, perhaps even earlier, but would we have been a liberal democratic nation? This question gives us pause before we make little of Gandhi’s legacy”, Professor Gupta correctly underlines. Similarly, Nehru was a citizen elite for his strict adherence to secularism, his vision while building premier educational institutions and for his five-year plans. In contrast, Mandal Commission recommendations, OBC reservations, caste-based census, and preventing criminals from politics are some of the instances where political leaders succumbed to the forces of inertia or short term political gains and failed to emerge as the citizen elite.

According to Professor Gupta, what we now have in India is not a “citizen elite” but philanthropists helping the poor out of sympathy. This may result in individual mobility for a few but the scale of transformation in India requires structural changes and significant investments in delivery systems. The citizen elite should consciously attack the impediments and constantly engage with the state policies, which can uplift each and every citizen. Elites have a voice which the poor do not have. Elites have an experience which the poor cannot imagine. Hence the performance of public services in a country is a reflection of elite engagement in reforming them. This forms the central argument of this book.

The driving force of the citizen elite could be necessary and sufficient to bring about political transformation and the author lucidly connects the concepts of fraternity, citizenship and the influence of the citizen elite in a democracy. However, the extension of the influence of the citizen elite to address the issues of public services is a hyperbole and the book loses its direction in the second half. It is from this point onwards that all the economic reasoning goes for a toss and the author offers simplistic policy prescriptions. Professor Gupta accurately identifies the problems when he says that most of the spending in the education and healthcare sectors is private or when he laments the lack of social security for a majority of the workforce. The shortage in both the quantity and the quality of public service delivery systems has indeed resulted in extensive privatisation of education and health care. These public services, which ought to be a platform for greater fraternity, have actually become a source of class based compartmentalisation.

But leadership alone is not enough for delivering public goods; it should be backed by sufficient resources and calculated tradeoffs. Professor Gupta calls for universal polices in the social sector as targeted policies make little sense with a huge population group being poor. He Argues that the money for these services, is not a problem because “when the growth rate is about 8 percent, there is a lot of money around” and in any case “welfare systems in Europe and Canada, as well as in East Asia, were set in place not when the countries were rich, but when they were poor”. Hence India should also implement universal policies without assessing its resource constraints.

The importance of universal coverage in health care and education for sustainable growth and human development has also been echoed by economists like Amartya Sen but what is peculiar about Professor Gupta’s argument is the authority with which he claims that money is not an issue—so much so that he titles the chapters on education and health care as “It Is Not About Money: Fraternity and Universal Health” and “It Still Is Not About Money: Call for Universal Education” respectively. His ideas are similar to those of the National Advisory Council (NAC), that believes in throwing money and legislations to resolve complex problems of poverty and social services. It is this line of thinking that got us into the present macro economic crisis. The blanket policy prescriptions in this book will only exacerbate the economic downturn.

The philosophical argument about the need for “citizen elite” to challenge the status quo and to shape the democracy makes Revolution from Above an interesting read. The book should have ideally been concluded there. Unfortunately, the vertigo-inducing economic reasoning that follows while advocating universal public services has belittling effect on the fine sociological arguments made earlier. A book that begins so promisingly leaves the reader dissatisfied at the end.


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