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Tocqueville in India (French Writings on India And South Asia)

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Item Code: UBJ210
Author: Jean Alphonse Bernard
Publisher: Social Science Press
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9789383166022
Pages: 261
Other Details 10.00 X 7.00 inch
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description

This is an essay in political philosophy, as applied to a particular country. Th India, at a given moment in time, the late twentieth century. The subject is not the country or its political regime, but the way in which Indian men and women live their regime as seen by a European. Some bias is clearly in- herent in this approach and is fully acknowledged.

The reader may wonder why so little space has been devoted to the economy of India, particularly given the recent acceleration of its growth and increased opening to the world. Economics is too serious a discipline and too important a subject to be treated casually or even as a secondary topic. Moreover, the effects that the acceleration of growth will exert upon the social fabric and the political system are still to be fully felt, much less to be analyzed and understood. A Tocquevillian must expect this kind of objection and perhaps admit its relevance.

Another observation is in order. This book was in the making when Partha Chatterjee published his Columbia University lectures and Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani edited Civil Society. This accounts for their absence from the Bibliography and from the gist of the debate. However, their works are highly relevant to the most important issues addressed hereafter.

The author is particularly happy to acknowledge the contribution Partha Chatterjee brings to the study of the relationship between the State and the citizens, especially the less affluent and articulate amongst them. His concept of "political society" is most stimulating. On the notion of civil society in a country like India, Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani appear to present arguments broadly in tune with ours.


This Tocqueville texts I took on my Indian travels long remained a closed Took. However, I did spot in Dindian taxes mained a loved the virtues of the New England townships or the evils of a centralizing State that found a remarkable echo in Gandhi's thinking. On several occasions I tried to draw other scholars' attention to these parallels, with little success. Later on, during an extended tour of Indian universities, I took along Tocqueville's works for a series of lectures with the deliberate purpose of exposing my guru's teachings to the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Still the distance between the two was too great for me to bridge and I was unable to make good use of the Tocquevillian approach to elucidate an issue that remained uppermost in my mind: understanding the kind of democracy India has become since gaining independence.

Though the Emergency of 1975-77 brought a short hiatus into an other- wise regular succession of elected governments, at least at the central level, the second reign of Mrs Gandhi (1980-84) saw two major insurrections in the Punjab and Assam, while governance became a scarce commodity in half the states. A dynasty of prime ministers fell to political bullets. Caste, ethnic and religious conflicts - necessarily common in such a huge and diverse country became as many petty wars that dragged on for years. When the fiftieth anniversary of Independence came in 1997, democratic governance at central level had become the plaything of political parties and discredited politicians with no vision of the future. To many leaders of opinion, the event offered an opportunity to give vent to their utter frustration by expressing a sense of national failure. One thing, however, stood out and was duly noted with pride and some wonderment by most of them: the maintenance of a democratic State. As Sunil Khilnani puts it:: "After almost fifty years of self-rule, the old certitudes of Indian politics had crumbled. Yet one powerful continuity stretched across this half-century of spectacular and often turbulent events: the presence of a democratic state." And Khilnani expressed a general opinion when he went on:

Huge, impoverished, crowded with cultural and religious distinctions, with a hierarchical social order almost deliberately designed to resist the idea of political equality, India had little prospective reason to expect it could operate as a democracy. Yet fifty years later India continues to have parliaments and courts of law, political parties and a free press, and elections for which hundreds of millions of voters turn out, as a result of which governments fall and are formed.

The role played by the relatively large British-educated elite, by a few charismatic leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Pandit Nehru, or by the remark- able ability of Indians to adapt to Western customs goes part of the way to explain the paradox, but not the whole way. As an argument for democratic compromise, the very diversity of the country, with its amazing patchwork of ethnic groups, languages and religions, begs the question. Appealing, as many Indian authors do, to the so-called democratic tradition of ancient India, as demonstrated by early republics depicted in old texts, is rather far-fetched and indeed preposterous.

A comparative approach struck me as offering the best way out of the di- lemma. It would help to bring out what Tocqueville called "the original facts" (see p. 9) and measure more exactly how close and how different India was from other countries with similar regimes or comparable social structures. To compare India with its South Asian neighbours, as Ayesha Jalal did, might be useful but also misleading, as India is such a large object that it bears heavily on the much smaller countries so close to it. No one has ever been more successful as a comparatist than Tocqueville was.

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