Archive for August, 2010

Grassroots Democracy in India and China

Manoranjan Mohanty, Richard Baum, Rong Ma and George Mathew (eds.) (2007) Grassroots Democracy in India and China: The Right to Participate. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks and London: Sage Publication. 498 pages. ISBN: 978-0-761 9-3515-5.

What is the relationship between development and democracy? This question has remained at the centre of discussion in literature on democracy, political theory and development studies. The classic studies on democracy by Barrington Moore, S. M. Lipset and Samuel Huntington have all shown that there exists a positive correlation between economic development and development of democracy. Huntington (1992) has argued that the ‘third wave’ of democratisation is a result of economic development, leading to the rise of urban middle class and creating ‘new sources of wealth and power outside the state and a functional need to devolve decision-making’.

When measured in purchasing power parity, India’s GDP was fourth in the world at US$ 2.69 trillion and China’s GDP was second in the world at US$ 5.73 trillion after the United States (US$ 10.14 trillion). These are also two of the fastest growing economies in the world today. Taking this recent economic growth of China and India into account and keeping the above theoretical proposition in mind, the question is how has economic transformation affected democratisation process in both the countries? Grassroots Democracy in India and China, which grew out of an international conference in Kolkata (India) in 2003, addresses some of the above concerns. Following an interdisciplinary, historical and comparative analysis, the book has brought together 20 essays by eminent scholars in the field which primarily examine the various aspects of grassroots democratisation process in India and China. The introduction by Mohanty discusses the two basic perspectives on local governance as propounded by Gandhi and Mao in their idea of gram swaraj (village-level self-rule) and the people’s commune respectively. According to Mohanty, the former depicts a bottom-up approach while the latter is a top-down approach to governance, where the institutions of local governance act as the agencies of implementation and legitimisation of the ruling system at the grassroots.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first section, consisting of nine essays, provides a historical overview of local political processes, the basic institutional structure of village self-government and the power dynamics at the local level in India and China. Mathew makes a historical-comparative analysis of the village communes of China and panchayats in India and argues that the statutory recognition of the holding of elections at the grassroots level after the passage of The Organic Law (1998) in China and Seventy-third Amendment (1992-1993) in India have brought about democratic revolutions in the countryside. Contrary to this optimism, Bandyopadhyay and others argue that the institutions of local governance have been working as mere tools of implementation of government programmes, and that the situation hardly changed in India after the Seventy-third Amendment. The panchayats lack autonomy and have remained subservient to the bureaucratic and political structures.

The chapter by Zhou compares the nature of rural political participation in the Maoist and Post-Maoist periods. Similarly, Vora analyses the social composition of eight village panchayats in two districts in Maharashtra, before and after the implementation of Seventy-third Amendment. Baum and Zhang provide a civil society perspective to local governance in China and show how the Sanchuan Development Association (SDA) ‘has thus far successfully avoided being controlled or co-opted by state agents’ (p. 136). According to them, this autonomy and independent functioning of SDA and other such organisations become possible only when they remain apolitical and do not depend on the government for funding. Contrary to this, Isaac shows how political participation and mobilisation of people through People’s Plan Campaign has resulted in successful institutionalisation and democratic decentralisation in Kerala.

The second section, which encompasses ten chapters, deals with the issues of political economy, institutional exclusion, gender, environment and good governance. Kellee Tsai makes a very interesting comparative analysis of the network of rural financial institutions, poverty alleviation and rural development in China and India. According to her, despite of the growth of micro-credit and formal financial systems, informal finance has remained as a greater source of rural finance in both the countries. She further argues that this predominance of ‘informal finance is not simply a manifestation of weakness in the formal financial system, but also, a product of local political, institutional and market interactions’ (p. 230).

Fei-Ling Wang, following the neo-Weberian idea of ‘social closure’ (stratification based on property, age, gender, ethnicity and educational credentials or skills) discusses the two dominant systems of exclusion—the PRC hukou system in China and the caste system in India. Bidyut Mohanty claims that, despite of all such exclusions, the social conditions of women in India is improving due to their increasing institutional and political representation in the local bodies made possible by statutory provisions. Though such legal provisions and institutional representations of women are less in China, electoral participation of both genders in some regions of rural China is becoming highly competitive and institutionalised, which has positive effects for democracy and governance. While in some other regions, the traditional kaxie (master of the village) system (similar to pradhan in north India) and Buddhist religious monasticism continue to occupy dominant positions, which, in turn, have delayed the process of grassroots democratisation in the region.

The third section provides a concluding chapter by Mohanty and Sheldon, where they have brilliantly discussed ‘the institutional dynamics and socio-economic processes of local governance in India and China within the broader parameters of the political economy of local democracy’ (p. 459). According to them, economic liberalisation and political transformation has not only resulted in the emergence of new rural elites, but also brought about many legal and institutional changes in the political structure. The state-society relationship is also getting redefined in the era of globalisation. In the era of expanding democratic consciousness, Mohanty and Sheldon urge for a fresh understanding of the concept of local democracy and express their hope that people’s struggle for grassroots democratisation would continue to rise in the 21st Century.

One of the basic criticisms of the book lies in its central argument, which asserts that increasing institutional representation will deepen grassroots democracy. Although institutions play a role, they may not fully explain the developmental problems in developing countries. Participation and representation of the people does not necessarily lead to their empowerment. The dominant variable of grassroots democratisation in developing countries is ‘society-rooted-politics’, which the authors have failed to explain and perhaps this is why there is not much discussion on people’s movements in both the countries and their contribution towards grassroots democratisation. Despite this, the essays in the volume are rich in empirical information and provide excellent interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives on local democracy in India and China.


Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo,  Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 144-146.