It is said that in the times of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian nationalism was so plural and complex it refused to be defined. These days, it is Indian democracy that refuses to make itself sufficiently understood. For those keen to make sense of these mysteries, despair is in ample supply.

There is a movement going on in India against corruption. Headquartered in New Delhi with branches across Indian towns and cities, it is supposed to have ‘captured the nation’s imagination’. The ‘youth’ of India has apparently risen to fight the ‘second war of independence’. The rhetoric is of a democratic revolution. Revolution is too grand a sensibility for our times and slightly inappropriate for the nature of South Asian politics. Democracy seems more earthly and familiar. Yet, the images of democracy emerging from the movement remain unclear. They must nevertheless be considered because India’s democratic experiment holds clues for many future models of relations between the government and the governed.

The core tensions underlying the movement are classics of representative democracy. One of them is the debate over the source of supreme authority or sovereignty. Government insists parliament is supreme; Anna Hazare et al rejoin it is the ‘people’. Any resolution of the debate hinges on the meaning of representation: people elect representatives alright; but can the people not represent themselves? Behind this question lurks the shadow of Rousseau’s extreme version of popular sovereignty – direct democracy. But Hazare speaks a language of virtue that reminds one of Oliver Cromwell. “Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?” asked Cromwell of the parliamentarians before dissolving England’s Long Parliament in April 1653. Hazare’s virtue incarnate retorts at the Indian parliament are not dissimilar.

The other tension to have surfaced is one between anarchy and order. Here, the government is being itself by raising what it feels are legitimate concerns of disorder that could emerge from a challenge to parliament’s authority and mass mobilization. Hazare et al are trying to allay these fears by claiming to be disciplined protestors in a Gandhian sense. But this appears a superficial debate. Anarchy and order are meaningful only in the context of government. India is governed only in the cities and towns; in the country side, it is ruled. The protests are mostly happening in towns and cities where law and order is easier to maintain for the government. The ‘Gandhian’ youth of Hazare et al is sanitised, managerial and urban enough to not tinker with the baton; or the rifle. When squared, what appears is a situation where fears are raised about something that will mostly not happen because both sides do not want it. This is one of the many convenient conditions that mark template liberal democracies.

However, the movement has very strongly questioned the postcolonial credentials of the Indian state and Indian democracy. Persistence of colonial tendencies in supposedly-independent states of South Asia and elsewhere in the Third World has been often noted. But the wider dissemination of these insights and their implications has been limited so far. Constant invocations of colonial frames while describing the government’s conduct or the leadership’s attitude have helped popularise these insights. This is important because when the government and the state are accused of acting like the colonial power, the meaning of postcolonial freedom becomes open to renegotiation. Once the idea of freedom submits to popular scrutiny, immensely important consequences could follow. Decolonisation may be a utopia; but only as much as colonisation was. Exposing the limits on the meanings of freedom may be an important contribution of the movement. But it is uncertain if India would move from being a postcolonial democracy to a decolonized democracy.

There are serious limitations of the movement, which, despite its ebullient run, could overwhelm it. For the prominent stakeholders of Indian democracy, it is remarkably unrepresentative. The marginalised groups of the country – Dalits and ‘backward’ castes/classes, indigenous ‘tribal’ people and religious minorities – have most to lose if the edifice of existing political institutions, with parliament at the top, is challenged. This is because these institutions entail provisions for helping them attain their rights. Religious minorities, especially Muslims, would not express their reservations against the movement for the old fear of being dubbed anti-nationals. The voice of the indigenous people has been seldom heard amidst suave interpreters of Indian democracy. Dalits speak. Dalit intellectuals have described the movement as casteist.  This should not be surprising because the two sides – the government and the protestors – have been separated along the lines of purity and pollution. ‘Pure’ anti-graft crusaders against ‘polluted’ corrupt government is a binary with which the Dalit imagination is deeply uncomfortable.

People on the margins of traditional and ‘national’ Indian imagination have been the truest beneficiaries and agents of its democratisation. Politics and democracy are not distinguishable phenomena for the Indian multitude. They rightfully claim to represent the dominant part of the entity called the ‘people’ of India. If they do not identify with the ‘people’ supporting Hazare et al, it weakens the democratic, representative and nationalist claims of the protestors.

This is possibly the first major political churning of what is being identified as India’s new middle class – mostly young or early-middle-aged beneficiaries of economic liberalisation. Till now, it kept from politics. It still does. Hence its contempt for politics, politicians and parliament. Hence its belief that unsullied virtue of an individual is superior to institutions of parliamentary democracy. Expectedly, as a part of the Indian ‘people’, it claims to be democratic too. But its ideas of democracy are too chic and therefore transient.

A measure of its political acumen is its belief that corruption is the most important issue in the country. It is not. It is no secret the biggest instances of corruption in India in recent years have been directly related to the ‘reforms’ undertaken in Indian economy. As resources – minerals and airwaves alike – become commodities, auctioning and selling practices that resemble predation have become rampant. Corruption is a corollary of India’s capitalism, which has also made the new middle class. This too is a convenient condition of liberal, market democracies. As the cliché goes, corruption is an issue for only those who engage and work the system. This is a movement of candle lights and cell phones. The real inheritors of Indian democracy light their houses with dung cakes, firewood or kerosene.

The most important challenges of India remain unchanged: justice, social and economic equality and equal access to certain standards of life for all Indians. The idea of Indian democracy that prioritises these values currently appears at odds with the idea of Indian democracy espoused by Hazare et al. Whether the twain shall meet is moot. Democracy, meanwhile, has become deeper and variegated.

Atul Mishra teaches politics and international relations at the School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, India. Views expressed are personal.

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