Pratyaya | Book Review : Democracy and the role of citizen elite

Excerpts from my  review of Revolution from Above : india’s Future and the Citizen Elite by Dipankar Gupta.

Should 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 bookRevolution 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.

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.

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