Pranab Bardhan on Democracy, Dignity and Development

Well known economist Pranab Bardhan delivered a lecture on “Democracy, Dignity and Development” here at the Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Golpark, Kolkata. The event, titled The Second Amlan Datta Memorial Lecture, was organized by the Alumni Association of Calcutta University Economics Department. Prof. Bardhan started off by sharing some memories of the kind of relationship that he had with Late Amlan Datta, another distinguished professor of economics from CU. While sharing these memories, he often mocked the Left for what he perceived to be its rigidity and irrationality (like calling people CIA agents instead of pointing out flaws in the arguments of others they perceived as their “enemy”). He also said that leftists have typically hated social democrats because they consider the latter to be their biggest rival when it comes to wooing the oppressed masses. (He used the word leftist in a blanket fashion, although he did mention once that he considers anyone upholding social justice as leftist; he also, on more than one occasion, said his political sympathies often lie with the leftist cause but he never regarded “Stalinism” too highly).

Moving on to the core topic, he immediately started off by criticizing those who celebrate India as the “world’s largest democracy”. He referred to Indian democracy as rather “weak” and “shallow in depth”. At the very onset, he made passing reference to the recent instances of arrest from within a university for protesting a case of hanging (he did not explicitly take Kanhaiyya Kumar’s name or that of JNU) or that of people getting arrested for sharing pictures that had a satirical take on some leaders (for instance, Ambikesh Mahapatra’s arrest for sharing a picture satirizing Mamata Banerjee) as being against the democratic ideal. He introduced what he believed to be three fundamental tenets of democracy – electoral representation and political competition, some measures of accountability of public services and finally ensuring of basic human rights. He pointed out that a lot of people tend to equate democracy with merely elections, which he referred to as a “very small part of the concept of democracy”. Instead, he insisted on giving more emphasis on political competition to foster pluralism. He quoted some statistics to show that even though in the last Lok Sabha elections a single party was able to form a majority government; as many as 36 parties have at least one seat in the parliament. Besides, regional parties still continued to get about 50% of the votes. This, according to him, was a positive sign, as also the institutions of accountability like Election Commission, CVC and CAG and so on. However, he was also quick to add that corruption is extremely rampant and the fact that the political parties do not even want to get their funding and expenses audited is problematic. He pointed out how the corporate funding of parties before elections (he gave the example of an estimate that BJP spent $ US 1 billion in the 2014 election) necessarily means they are doing it on a quid pro quo basis.

Regarding human dignity, he said that while Indian democracy has been shallow in depth, it has been widening because of a greater participation from many hitherto marginalized sections like Dalits, Adivasis etc. Today, he says, an upper caste minister while giving a speech has to be careful not to say something that can be considered demeaning for the so-called lower castes, and this for him is a positive development. On the same note, he said that he hears a lot of upper caste people continuously pointing out how Mayawati’s regime in UP is extremely corrupt, how she is garlanded with numerous thousand rupee notes or how she erects her own statues across the state. However, what we don’t hear too often, he adds, is another side of the story – that in a state where Rajputs and other upper caste people used to rape Dalits or other lower caste women on a regular basis but the complaints were never registered, the FIRs of the rapes are finally beginning to be officially recorded. This for him is a positive step as far as human dignity is concerned. However, he also pointed that these “dignity based movements” often do not care about economic justice, like ensuring clean water and proper sanitation, the lack of which “is causing the deaths of many Dalit children”. He calls this politics “competitive populism” or “short termism”, where even though some people from marginalized communities come to power, they take populist measures which satisfy people in the short term but are, according to him, harmful for the poor in the long term. He gave instances of Mayawati transferring some “able upper caste” officers and replacing them with party people hailing from her own caste, implying that she sacrificed efficiency to appease her constituency. Parties, to ensure that they do not lose out in the competition for power, give people “freebies” that range from electronic gadgets to subsidies or cancellation of debts of farmers, which according to him are harmful in the long run. It was interesting that he referred to governments pardoning farmer loans as a significant problem at a time when farmer suicides due to debt traps are rampant across the country. He also did not make a single reference to reports that point out how rich capitalists account for a major chunk of the debt write-off. Especially because he said that giving “freebies” or subsidies hampers the chances of “investment”, a question naturally arises if he supports the argument that corporate debt write-offs are not bad because they should be seen as “incentives towards investment”. He also pointed out other problems with political parties like lack of internal democracy, dynastic politics and so on.

He then moved on to the relationship between democracy and development. Interestingly, he did not problematize the concept of development at all, i.e. he did not mention that development is a contested notion and multiple, often conflicting perspectives have been presented over the years. He did however, make some references to Amartya Sen’s concept of development as freedom and the decentralized, rural reconstructionist notion of development of Gandhi and Tagore. He also added that he mostly considered these notions as “utopian” and that as an economist, it makes little sense to assume that every person will learn to practice some amount of self sacrifice; rather, it is better to frame policies with the assumption that it is an imperfect society where people have desire for incentives. He said that research needs to be done to find out “when cooperation works and when it does not”, implying that cooperation will not work always. The basis of such an assumption wasn’t particularly clear. Nonetheless, proceeding to talk on the impact of democracy on development (in its neoliberal, capitalist avatar?), he started off by saying that a lot of people argue that, following the example of China, developing countries need authoritarianism, not democracy, for development. He said that both authoritarianism and democracy are neither sufficient, nor necessary for development. He said that examples of developing countries like Costa Rica and Botswana show that democracy and development can simultaneously flourish. On the other hand, there are many examples, the audience was told, where authoritarianism has coexisted with lack of development. He used the example of China to discuss how democracy may help or hinder development. He said the fact that China has 15 times more coal mine deaths than India is actually because of a lack of democracy. While he did point out that coal mining conditions are terrible in India and deaths occur regularly here as well, that reality seemed to take a backseat because of the enthusiasm about “performing” better than China. One wonders if the plight of the workers in India who have to work in dehumanizing conditions was being trivialized even if marginally through such an approach. Regarding how democracy can “hurt” development, he cited the example of elite capture at local governments as well as instances like electricity theft for Puja Pandals. He referred to the second example as a manifestation of the “tension between participatory and procedural democracy”. He said that this is even more rampant in those states where lower castes or hitherto excluded sections have recently got power. His argument was that because they were new to the scene, they were unaccustomed to the “rules of formal democracy”. He also referred to a section from V.S Naipul’s “India: A Million Mutinies Now” where the author had said that historically oppressed sections, when they get the reins of power in their hands for the first time, tend to “behave badly” but later on, they learn to play by the rules of the game. However, Prof. Bardhan differed with this view, saying that he cannot feel so optimistic because some of these anti-developmental activities tend to be “irreversibly harmful”. It may not be outlandish to point out that Prof. Bardhan seemed to have disregarded the possibility that the very “procedural democracy” that he values so much (in fact he also called it “bourgeoisie democracy” himself but said the left have typically made a mistake by “rejecting it too soon”) may actually be inherently problematic and exclusionary and therefore how much people have been able to internalize the rules of this system may not necessarily be the best metric of democratic progress. In sum, it can be said that despite several criticisms of the status quo, he seemed to remain within the capitalist framework and refused to engage with any project that wishes to go beyond it.

Article by Kishalaya Mukhopadhyay & edited by Manisha 


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