The Tribune - Spectrum

, July 14, 2002

Journey of a political thinker
G.V. Gupta

by Rajni Kothari. Rupa. Pages 268. Rs 195.

MemoirsNO study of Indian polity for the past half century can be complete without a reading of Rajni Kothari, a pioneer in empirical studies in this field and the founder of the CSDS. His "Politics in India" is a must reading for under- and post-graduate courses in Indian politics all over the world. He gave the term "Congress system" to the political lexicon to describe the party system in India, attuned to highly effective consensus-building process within the party, providing its own opposition, keeping certain core values of democracy intact.

Memoirs is a journey of an uneasy mind. Along with small doses of personal life, he concerns himself largely with constant evolution of his political thinking and the politics of a committed intellectual in interacting with and building bridges between important political actors, including Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Deve Gowda, I. K. Gujral and V. P. Singh. The life has been guided by a threefold passion for ‘ideas, institution building and politics." Memoirs, however, is concerned with his ideas only and not his dialogues with active politicians. About a hundred pages, starting with Chapter 8, are concerned with his thinking after "Politics in India".


Rajni is deeply disappointed with the "nemesis" of Congress starting with Indira Gandhi and ending in corruption-ridden rule of Narasimha Rao. Indira’s slogan of "garibi hatao" resulted in a highly centralised bureaucratic system devoid of democratic values in the absence of any alternative institution building. She also played the aggressive communal card. Rajiv Gandhi’s ineptness and Rao’s corruption completed the fall of the Congress and the Congress system. Sonia Gandhi is unable to revive either. The experience of the post-Nehru period has shown the effectiveness of representative democracy in providing legitimacy to the rule, but its failure in being accountable to the people and in meeting their aspirations. The result is the mushrooming of personal parties, absence of a national party and a national agenda, growth of all sorts of alliances and morchas and breakdown of the party system. Anguished, Rajni is searching for alternatives.

Rajni Kothari with his grandchildren
Rajni Kothari with his grandchildren

Democracy for Rajni is not form but a society informed by ethical values of equality, freedom and digility, i.e., emancipatory. Historically, it has grown with the development of capitalism and nation state. Increasing inequality created the crisis of capitalism, which was sought to be met by a welfare state. However, there is retreat of welfare with the rise of globalisation. American hegemony can be met only by a democratic nation state. A nation state has to meet the twin challenges of globalisation and bureaucratic centralisation. Rajni, however, has no faith in decentralisation.

He is aware of the limits of experiments carried out in India officially so far for democratic decentralisation and their large failures. However, his faith remains in the movements of a Medha Patker or Shankerguha Neogy or a Rajendra Singh or SEWA or Mrs Roy. Since the party system has broken down, the only alternative is of participatory democracy rather than of representative democracy. This will also be a defence against the capitalist argument of democracy being the necessary global system and the western attempt to wage an international coalition, even an armed one, for the defence and propagation of the democratic system in the world. They want a representative system, which will be easy to manipulate. He, therefore, argues for a direct participatory system at various levels. This will require people being made conscious of the issues at stake. This will mean civil society movements, thousands in number, working at various levels. Rajni feels that these movements will have to be holistic in nature and argues for a composite nature of the values. Democratic values, for Rajni, cannot be established in isolation of one value receiving precedence over the other.

He also feels that all members of civil society have to move towards emancipation together. One remaining a slave means all are slaves. He has lost faith in established alternatives, Gandhian, Marxist, Capitalist or Spiritual. He is looking for the possibilities of democracy leading to emancipation from the shackles of both modernity and tradition and self-rule by the people.

It is obvious that Rajni is moving away from any kid of dialectics when he talks of simultaneous emancipation of all. Limits of self-governance will limit the possibilities of economies of scale. Its essential is self-denial and service. It is possible to think of reduced bureaucracy, but not of its extinction. It implies suppression of ego, a desire to be distinct, a desire to be recognised. It can make Rajni easily subject to the charge of utopia. All in all, one gets the impression that Rajni is moving quite close to Gandhi.

Rajni chose to be an activist political thinker, rejecting his family calling as the only son of a well-to-do Jain trader, who was married into an equally well-off family of traders. Maybe it had something to do with the early death of his mother and his father bringing in a stepmother from whom he was alienated. The death of his wife in the evening of his life seem to make him look for his roots in his Jainism-Vaishnavism and its principal value of ahimsa, i.e., absence of oppression, or non-exploitation, or equality and self-denial. The choice of a term like emancipation confirms this. The failure of communism and end of Hegelian history will bring many back to their roots as they did India’s foremost political thinker.