What Does It Mean to Really Be a Good Citizen?

The role of citizens in a democracy is not just to vote in elections, but to ask questions 'in between' elections.

There was once a very powerful leader. He was one of the people, but different. He looked like them, but his skin was shinier and his nails cleaner, his clothes looked like theirs but were of the more expensive variety, the gold chain around his neck glinted discreetly. But he was a man of the people, he insisted, a son of the soil there to serve his people. He was a man full of arrogance and guile. He was a leader of the people because he controlled everything – what they ate, who they married, where they got jobs, who they were friends with, how they voted.

If you didn’t fall in line, punishment was inevitable. His preferred form of control was to divide and rule. He provided incentives to some, punishments to others. He divided brothers, bullied women, schemed with allies, but he acted alone. His stamp was on every little issue, every dispute, and he made himself the sole arbiter. Nothing was too small or big for him to seize it to increase his power. Thus, everyone remained in constant awe and anticipation of his next move.

People were scared of him for they did not know what he would do next. But they also admired him – for his charisma, for his way with words, his humble origins, his sheer gall. And while everyone did not like what he did but thought that at least you knew where you stood with one person in charge. It was better than having too many men vying for power.

The party he belonged to also admired his efforts. His power over people, his easy use of violence to intimidate challengers, his control over the imaginations of so many, were very useful for the party and its ideology. It needed real leaders to take it to the people. It needed people to believe that they could not exist without this ideology and this leader, and that his party alone would make them prosperous and aspire for better lives. And so in every election, they voted for him. Again, and again and again.

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If anyone expressed a doubt, they were shouted down, reminded of how awful things were in the past, that change was needed, and above all, strong leadership. And the leader got more powerful and vainer with each election, controlling his followers as if they were puppets, playing with them, using sticks and carrots, harassing women, dividing families, and his clothes got even better, his nails even more polished and his house even bigger. No one could imagine any other life, any other existence, without their powerful leader.

Students and activists protest against violence on the JNU campus at Gateway of India. Photo: PTI.

But then people began to see through him and his methods and began to be angry about his hold over them. They realised that the only ones getting richer were the ones closest to him. Their own lives were in fact not much better with rising prices and stagnant wages. But nothing could change they thought, it was impossible to bring this shameless, dangerous and arrogant man down. His party was too powerful, the tentacles of its organisation too widespread, watching every action.  They resigned themselves to living and dying in the thrall of this man.


But one day, change began to come. It came because the leader went a step too far. He miscalculated; his hubris took over and he made a grave mistake. He realised his misjudgement, tried to cover it up using his tried and tested methods, creating distractions, but the more he did this, the more mistakes he made. Soon, he was no longer trying to make amends for his original mistake, but simply making sure that he clung to power. And that is what made many people think, enough is enough, there is a limit. We have tolerated this man because we had no other option if we want to live here, but does that mean we allow him to shamelessly violate the sanctity of our laws, the dharma of our society? This time, many felt, he has crossed a red line and needed to be taught a lesson.

But what could they do? Were they the only ones thinking like this? Did anyone else agree? How would they find out? It was too risky to say something aloud for fear of being reported. So people sat in their homes watching the next move of their leader, getting angrier and angrier, but unable to do anything about it.

This is a story from my research in India and if you think you have guessed who this leader is, I am fairly certain that your guess is wrong.

This is the story of the local Comrade in the villages that I call Madanpur and Chishti in West Bengal where I have been doing research since 1998. Every detail of this story is true and happened during my fieldwork. The Comrade described above was the local representative of the powerful Left Front government that won every election from 1977 to 2011. When I began my research at the turn of the last century the Left Front seemed invincible as was the Comrade. People were so terrified of him that they only criticised him in hushed whispers in the dead heat of the afternoon when everyone napped. But gradually as I won their trust, I began to hear the stories from them.  And witnessed the change.

How did the change happen? The story continues…

Common cause and solidarity 

A young man called Majhi who had been angry ever since the day the leader had humiliated him in front of his friends for daring to look him in the eye while speaking decided to try something. He had nothing to lose, he had no job (because the leader had ensured he never got one), he lived alone with his mother and they got by on his earnings from private tuitions.

He mustered the courage to talk to a neighbour to see how he felt. This was a calculated risk. He knew the neighbour was an old supporter of the Congress and secretly voted for them but in public, he sang praises of the leader. But Majhi’s advances gave him an opportunity and while they did not agree on everything, they decided to focus on what they had in common. The neighbour then spoke to his sharecropper, whose estranged brother was close to the leader. Both the neighbour and his employer spoke to their wives, who spoke to others as they washed clothes at the pukur. Majhi’s mother spoke to the parents of the children at the homework club that Majhi ran. And so after a while, many more people were having conversations about the need for change, the need to do something, the need to knock the leader off his pedestal.

Representative image of anti-CAA protests in the country. Photo: PTI/Files.

The conversations continued in hushed whispers as everyone was terrified about being betrayed by someone, but every conversation gave the speaker strength, every new person who was made part of the conversation added to the growing number, and the awareness of growing numbers gave people courage.

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In this process, the people of Madanpur and Chishti learnt some key lessons. One, you need to find a common purpose to come together and this took reflection. They needed to identify what exactly they were taking risks for. Were they just opposed to the comrade and wanted to seize power for themselves or did they want more?

Two, you may have a shared history of differences, enmities and disagreements, but to work together, you need to suppress these. This meant you had to relate differently to others. Each person had to learn to deal with personal jealousies and keep their eye on the change they wanted to see.

Three, they needed to do things differently to the comrade. They had to treat each other differently, aspire to different things.

But how could they adopt these new behaviours when the politics they had witnessed had been full of hatred and violence? They took inspiration from other contexts in which they came together. For instance, they knew as cultivators that during a harvest each person had a specific job that ultimately created the grain heap. So, one person’s job was to just cut a string to the right length to tie bundles, but without someone doing that little job, there would be no bundles of hay.

Social divisions were always present and the hierarchy of caste and age always dominated. How could people forget about those for the sake of this new political work, the new party they were forming? And then the example of Id prayers where people of all castes stood shoulder to shoulder provided the imagination of an egalitarian gathering.

And so on and in this way, they learnt to do politics, to do what I call ‘political work’ by learning not just from formal political institutions of party and cadre but from other aspects of their life in the village.

And as they began to form their rival political party Trinamool Congress, the irony was that a lot of their political mobilisation was inspired by having observed the Comrade himself. The way to describe a member of a Left Front was to say in Bangla o party korey (he does politics). And they had seen at close proximity what ‘doing politics’ required.  This political work did not happen just during elections when turning people out to vote for them was the main goal. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

Active citizenry 

Political work happened in between elections. That is when tirelessly the Comrade talked to those who might be sympathetic, trying to win them over with answers to their objections, arguing why his party’s ideology was the purest, standing by them when they asked for his help, how supporting him would make everyone prosperous and so on. So they tried the same tactics.

And in the process they began to ask questions: how could the local Pradhan afford to whitewash his house every year, while they were finding it hard to procure straw to thatch their huts. Why was the Comrade the only one with running water in his house? And why were brothers not talking to each other even when they lived in the same village? Why were the women having to live in a permanent state of alertness to the Comrade’s roving eye even though he was one man against so many? Why was the Comrade the only one who did not use local labour for his fields even though he talked about the rights of agricultural workers? And so on.

It was asking these questions, hearing the answers that others gave, learning to weigh the evidence before making their judgements that gave people greater understanding. And once they realised that many others were asking the same questions, solidarity grew. As did the courage to ask more questions. And then one day the Comrade was no longer the leader of the village but young Majhi was.

It is this kind of ‘political work’ that was done in between elections when people asked questions and held the Comrade to account that Machiavelli called ‘active citizenship’.  While it his text The Prince that has become synonymous with the political machinations of a leader, we also ought to pay greater attention to Machiavelli’s ideas in The Discourses where he outlined what it is to be a good citizen. It is part of a tradition of republican thought in which collective action, responsible citizenship and solidarity are key. The responsibility of citizens did not end with voting in elections but had to continue until the next one, holding their elected leaders to account, asking questions and cultivating solidarities among themselves.  This is what the inhabitants of Madanpur and Chishti did and as farmers, they knew the value of hard work, patience and watchfulness in the process of cultivation.

It is worth recalling that when the credentials of an independent India were being defined in 1950, the words chosen were ‘sovereign democratic republic’ over the initial formulation of ‘sovereign independent republic’.

Ambedkar had insisted on the inclusion of both ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ to indicate that they were distinct. While (political) democracy indicated the character of the vertical representative nature of the relationship between citizens and state established through elections, the term republic outlined social democracy or ‘democracy in social life’ that required fraternity and solidarity between people. This social democracy in everyday life alongside political democracy of elections required citizens to not only vote, but remain vigilant of elected leaders in between elections. Without such republican active citizenship, democracy is empty of meaning.

The story narrated above provides a glimpse into how active citizenship existed in a small village in India and holds big lessons for us all.

In 2013, the Trinamul Congress won the Panchayat elections, consolidating their power over their rivals, having won the state assembly in 2011.

In the elections concluded last month, the Left Front won no seats, and Trinamul Congress won the largest vote share any party has ever won in West Bengal, defeating the seemingly invincible BJP and its all-powerful leader.

The legacy of ‘doing politics’, ideology, and violence continues with valuable lessons for the future.

Mukulika Banerjee’s book Cultivating Democracy (Oxford University Press, New York) will be published in October 2021.