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Who Wants Democracy?- Book Review

By Sarbeswar Sahoo

01 June, 2007

India has long baffled theorists of democracy. How has democracy been enduring in India despite of inhospitable conditions and broken promises? Who gives legitimacy for its functioning in the face of political crisis and growing deinstitutionalization? Has it been successful in dealing with the problems of the common people? Writing from a subaltern perspective, Javeed Alam in his slender volume on Who Wants Democracy? presents a concise yet comprehensive overview of the complex dynamics of democracy in India since independence. According to him, the beginning of democracy in India was a result of the tryst between the elites and the masses. The masses were promised of welfare and improvement of conditions and in return delegated the elites the power to rule. But, democracy in India is no longer an act of faith granted from above, its very life and survival now depends on the politics of the oppressed and exploited or what Partha Chatterjee (2004) calls ‘the politics of the governed’. It has been internalized and morally approved in the subaltern political consciousness.

The increasing participation of the vulnerable populations and their struggle for equality and inclusion has redefined the boundaries of democratic politics in India. Comparing the 1996 and 1971 election data, Alam identifies the democratic surge among the downtrodden. The subaltern politics driven by the weak and the powerless has constrained the bourgeois hegemony conspicuous in their declining electoral participation. Though he is right in arguing that the marginal section is increasingly participating in the electoral politics, his assumption of the declining hegemony of the elites, which he draws from the percentage of voting, is not worth convincing. Moving further, Alam’s argument on the growing acceptance of democracy is not because it has addressed the basic livelihood issues of the poor, but because it has provided the common people a democratic space to fight for dignity, equality, rights and entitlements seems limited. If we see the empirical situation, it is true that more and more people from vulnerable sections are asserting their rights, but it has not spread beyond certain social groups and geographical locations.

Alam makes a very powerful argument in recognizing the role of neo-middle class among the oppressed. He argues that this newly emergent middle class (p. 51) plays significant role in unifying the lower caste-based communities as blocs to compete for power in democratic contestations, and transform their existence from ‘collective unfreedom’ (p. 46) towards equality, inclusion and recognition. Through the weapons of social justice and empowerment, the neo-middle class has been able to break through into the dominant structures long monopolized by the previlegensia (p. 81) and have been able to sketch out the self-definition of identity and politics of the oppressed communities. Thus, the struggle of the vulnerable communities was a struggle for freedom and equality, rights and entitlements or a fight for ‘full citizenship’ (p.71).

Explaining the making of the Indian nation, Alam argues that the dominant secular Nehruvian model is now threatened by the communal politics and regional assertion. The monolithic conception of nation derived either from the secular or from the Hindutva has been rejected by the linguistic cultural regions and multiple ways being Indian is taking shape over a period of time. Alam’s arguments on democracy and the making of Indian nation seem shallow and lack the understanding of long historical trajectory. It does not explain the idea that India as a nation was conceived and constructed in opposition to the British. And the independence movement was a movement for nation-building and at the same time a struggle for self-rule.

It is widely believed that democracy needs civil society to survive and thrive. Exploring the role of NGOs, media and their role in the rising new social movements, Alam tries to address the issue of whether civil society is necessarily a precondition for the success of democracy. He sees civil society as a fragmented sphere where the vulnerable sections lack the civility and politeness; and the elites who are educated and capable of exercising their rights constitute the core members of the civil society and set the rule for the functioning of democracy in India without the support of a very large part of the civil society. This line of reasoning stands contrary to his central thesis that democracy in India no more depends on the good wills of the elites. In comparison to the western experience, Indian democracy reveals various paradoxes with its persistent poverty, mass illiteracy and ascriptive loyalties, and highlights the growing democratic commitments on the part of the poor. Alam argues, despite of its dependence on traditional and particularistic social structure, common people’s search for freedom, equality, recognition and agency has given legitimacy for Indian democracy to continue. Thus, to conclude and quote, ‘democracy is getting transcribed under the impact of Indian particularities’ (p. 138, emphasis original).

Despite of some weaknesses, the book’s greatest accomplishment is that it is a concerted and comprehensive attempt to explore the adaptation of modern universal value like democracy in a traditional and particularist society like India. Combining logical presentation with thought provoking and coherent theoretical arguments, Alam establishes a connecting thread between chapters. The lucid analysis of the functioning of democracy makes it a comprehensive companion to understand the basic philosophical values of democracy in India.


Chatterjee, Partha (2004) The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, New York: Columbia University Press

Alam, Javeed (2004) Who Wants Democracy?, New Delhi: Orient Longman, xix + 143 pp., Rs. 175

Sarbeswar Sahoo is a PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore;


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