Alpa Shah on democracy and sortition in India and globally

Alpa Shah is Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK, where she also leads a research theme at the International Inequalities Institute. Her most recent book is Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas (Hurst, 2018).

Shah has an article in a special issue of Development and Change journal titled “What if We Selected our Leaders by Lottery? Democracy by Sortition, Liberal Elections and Communist Revolutionaries”.


What if we selected our leaders by lottery? Zooming out from the mud huts of indigenous communities in the forested hills of eastern India, this article compares three different models of leadership and democracy: liberal electoral democracy; Marxist‐Leninist Maoist democracy; and democracy by sortition — the random selection of rotating leaders. The significance of sortition is introduced into discussions of democracy in India (showing connections with practices in Nepal and China) as part of a broader attempt to make scholarship on South Asia more democratic. The author also re‐reads ideals of leadership among indigenous people, showing that we need a theoretical and practical vision arguing not for societies without leaders but for societies in which everyone may be a leader. In India, this compels us to push back against the critique of its indigenous communities for not producing leaders and enables a profound re‐reading of the history of subaltern anti‐colonial rebellions. The final aim of the article is to highlight the virtues of the potential of sortition in creating democratic society globally. How we think about democracy and leadership is thus turned on its head to provide a new vision for the future.

It is interesting to contrast the tone of this article with the tone of the standard Western-oriented reformist, sortitionist, “deliberative” articles. Here is one of the first paragraphs from the article:

Today, under such liberal electoral democracy, people in the centre and east of [India], the Kashmir valley, or the north‐east border states are easily imprisoned without being brought to trial, or simply disappear. They live under a military rule in which security forces burn, rape and plunder with impunity. For much of the Indian population, the constitutional promise of equality and dignity is far‐fetched, as they are thrown into detention camps, have their land snatched from under their feet, the last vestiges of basic labour rights removed from them. Moreover, anyone criticizing or speaking out against these injustices is likely to be harassed by the police, have cases filed against them and face imprisonment. Intellectuals, lawyers and democratic rights activists have been targeted; many of my colleagues and friends are now in prison. Under democracy has flourished a form of capitalism that has exacerbated stark socio‐economic inequalities backed by extreme violence, both concealed and open.

2 Responses

  1. Finally got round to reading this, and it’s really good!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] or illiberal” leaders from getting elected, and as a way to appoint public servants. A paper discussed sortition with a focus on India. In Massachusetts a letter to the newspaper introduced […]


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