Social democracy—means or end?
Reviewed by Kanwalpreet

An Indian Social Democracy, Integrating Markets, Democracy And Social Justice
Edited by Sunil Khilnani and Manmohan Malhoutra, Academic Foundation in association with Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust, New Delhi,
Volume 1 (444 pages) and Volume 2 (324 pages), Price Rs 1,995.

With the concept of 'Welfare State' not just a mere formality but an ideal to be pursued by States all over the world, India has always aimed to incorporate the basic ideas of social democracy. This book is a result of discussions and deliberations that took place during many conferences regularly organised by the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust.

The theme of the Tenth Indira Gandhi Conference was ‘An Indian Social Democracy'. The views expressed by experts from various fields have been collected by the editors, Sunil Khilnani and Manmohan Malhoutra. The ideology of social democracy becomes important, as Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, points in her inaugural address, the story of India's contrasts is well known: ability, aspiration and achievement coexist with injustice, inequity and inequality.

Experts like Yogender Yadav, senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, talk about elections being 'an occasion for the transfer of energy and resources from the unorganised to the organised sector of democracy.' Calling elections a fusion of popular beliefs, Yogender Yadav explains what elections mean to the rich and the poor.

All experts talk about finding a balance between the different sections of the people. The aim is to find a solution to the problems of over one billion people that inhabit this land. The problems are many but the Indian State endeavours to find ways to equip its citizens with the necessary skill to earn their livelihood. But it falters in implementation. For example, the Government of India provides education but, unfortunately, the rate of school drop-outs is the largest in the world. What is needed is remedial education, as suggested by Pranab Bardhan, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The discussions centre on how to deliver goods to the people with minimum wastage and leakages. The aim is to mould capitalism in a manner that it aligns with the concept of social justice. When the resources are unequally distributed there has to be a deliberate effort to see that these are distributed in a manner that benefits all. It is here that the State steps in. But the luminaries also point out the role of the citizens themselves. The words of Mrs Indira Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India, stand here in good stead here. She said, "If we want to be a modern nation, then we have to make a special effort to see that all those sections of the people should be helped. Not by other people going and doing things but by helping them to do things for themselves."

The 10th conference aimed to discuss the crisis in social democracy. Aruna Roy, a social and political activist, brings forth the problems of the people who are displaced from their land and are punished when they protest. She warns, "If we don't listen to their protest and don't give it space, we are doomed." Health security, economic globalisation, local development in connection with the global perspective are few subjects of these discussions.

Wang Hui, intellectual historian, professor of literature and history at Tsinghua University, Beijing, gives reasons as to why communism collapsed in the USSR and Eastern Europe but not in China. His views make for interesting study. Besides such information, the main concern is to offer practical suggestions to eliminate extreme poverty. Nitin Desai, chairman of Oxfam International, highlights the problems of environmental stresses like deforestation, droughts and how these make the poor more vulnerable. He says, "Discrimination is an important aspect of the forces that push the poor into vulnerable situations."

Ethnicity is another problem that has been discussed in detail. With a diverse population as ours, the problem of distribution of resources becomes more acute. It becomes a dilemma that has to be solved. Steve I. Wilkinson, who is the Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Yale University, discusses about ethnic cleavages and the need for conflict-moderating institutions. He arrives at certain conclusions which seem positive. For example, he says that Indians are not as heavily motivated by ethnicity as the literature sometimes suggests.

The august gathering comprising experts like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bina Agarwal, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, among others do not mince words when they speak about the harsh reality. Such discussions are the need of the hour. The edited book adds to one's knowledge because it is difficult to get the views of such experts in this detail. The book quenches this thirst but is voluminous and one needs patience to read and absorb such detail.