A new hymn for a new republic

An aggressive but far from confident Republic seeks vindication from the rhetoric of masculinity, promoting the mob and mediocrity and emasculating the idea of citizenship

A new hymn for a new republic

Shiv Visvanathan

The word ‘Republic’ is a much appropriated term. Originally, it evoked a critique of authoritarian regimes, especially monarchies. The word has often been a favourite cover for military regimes. The word has to be rescued from its current vagaries. Today, the idea of the Republic stands for a model of representative government, a theory of citizenship and a mode of conducting politics in complex societies. In this context, one has to ask how republican is India in its 70th year of inauguration. The feelings are mixed because Indian society has become a chameleonic idea.

In a formal sense, republican India can be proud of itself, a pride it displays every January 26 in tableaus capturing the life and institutions of its people. The irony comes when one realises that it is democracy that threatens democracy in India. Electoral democracy as majoritarianism threatens the integrity of representation that a democratic republic requires.

We have in power, till now, a majoritarian regime which is communal in its politics. It has created the irony that Indian citizens are facing - of a majoritarian regime emphasising the monolingualism of the nation state where the very lifeworld of ideas like people, democracy, citizenship and even the myth that protected it are threatened. A democracy, if it is to be healthy, has to face this electoral and institutional paradox.

A manifesto of our Republic has to begin with an interrogation and exorcism of words that define a republican democratic space. To do this, we have to explore democracy both in its institutional and populist and electoral aspects.

Indian democracy, in its republican incarnation, has become a collection of clichés. We pride ourselves as superior to Pakistan as a democracy, while our elites secretly aspire to be as tyrannically decisive as China. They feel Chinese regimes are reformist, masculine and can create change at any cost. India, the elites feel, is still a soft republican state and that the very demand for adequate representation delays our march towards modernity. Electoral majoritarianism is a way of downsizing our China envy while still feeling democratically superior to Pakistan.

It is odd that a Republic, seventy years into its career, should still wish to be so dependent on the definition of others. Hence, ours is aggressive but not too confident a Republic. The Modi regime expresses the ambivalence of this split republicanism as it ventures abroad to Japan or Davos.

A linguist would have a field day analysing Modi at Davos or him talking to NRI’s or delivering an electoral speech. He has little understanding that his majoritarianism evokes the brute power of a brute majority. He has no sense of the margin, the minority, the dissenter or the defeated. Majoritarianism, by its very constitution, becomes a threat to the pluralistic imagination and the myth of India. The very grammar of representation and representativeness is broken because of the non-dialogic notion of representativeness. A brute majority, claiming historical victimhood, now becomes dominant.

Our Republic today is a lethally potent mix of jingoism, populism, conformism and majoritarianism

This form of weak republicanism has consequences. It weakens current institutions and creates a version of the crowd as a substitute for the openness of a people. Republican regimes, because they are not direct democracies, have to have strong sense of institutions, but it is this sense of institutionalism that we lack. The crucial causality of such a trend has been the University.

The University, with its sense of dissent and pluralism, sustains the knowledge systems, the style of democratic discourses that keeps republicanism alive. The death of the public University and the decline of the public intellectual had been catastrophic for the idea of the Republic.

The regime forgets that the Republic is a framework for the public as a way of life and as an imagination. Only a vigorous public life can sustain a republican society, it demands a change of regimes as ideas change. Beyond the demise of the University, it is the death of the public spaces that troubles the Indian Republic.

To add to this, our bureaucracy and our elites have become rubber stamps of majoritarianism, because it enables them to hide their inadequacies. As a result, not only are our formal institutional spaces weak, what is worse is that we have created artificial representativeness of the mob, the mainstream, the majority. We have emasculated civil society which articulates the voices of a people and have replaced it with a parallel structure composed of the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Shiv Sena which pretends to be the people, an insult democracy may not survive for long.

He has no sense of the margin, the minority, the dissenter or the defeated. Majoritarianism becomes a threat to the plurality 

The mob has become a surrogate for the people and crowd behaviour representative of the debate in public spaces. Thus, the Indian Republic today is a Republic of intolerance, violence and a mediocrity of electoral representativeness but a lethally potent mix of jingoism (nationalistic), populism (cultural), conformism (intellectual and bureaucratic) and majoritariansim (electoral).

A conspiracy of uniformity haunts the idea of republican diversity. Intellectually, this uniformity produces a regime of clichés, bowdlerising complex ideas and banalising political decisions, and the machismo and mediocrity of majoritarianism.

It is as if the very Republic of ideas is haunted by an epidemic of mediocrity. Violence and seal of violence seem to be the only form of everyday approval. The mob becomes that legislative act, serving as the extension of the majority. As the mob widens its impact, the institutions of republicanism decline.

The other major causality of the majoritarian idea of republicanism is the idea of citizenship. When liberty is reduced to law and order, the idea of diversity suffers because citizenship as an invitation to public space has no place for the nomad, the tribal (because they do not conform), the dissenter (because they do not belong) and the refugee (because citizenship lacks a sense of hospitality).

Our behaviour to the Rohingyas and the very ritual of the Assam register with its communal overtones completely vitiates the sense of vitality and openness of citizenship. Citizenship is no longer a political idea of freedom. It is limited entitlement certificate issued by a bureaucracy. The regime, while pretending to correct historical wrongs, the injustices perpetrated by historical struggles, is destroying the sense of citizenship, of equality, of a durability of entitlement. Instead, the register raises prospect of internment camps, Gulags of the imagination. No January 26 tableau is going to capture the poignancy of the abandoned refugee.

Finally, the entire portrait of republican India lacks an authenticity. For this, it needs the power of myth, a creativity that the regime lacks. It confuses myth with ideology and converts itself into a brand, high on advertisement but low in its understanding of the cultural unconscious.

The idea of nation or the cow or democracy sounds so pathetic that one wishes there was a folklore of republicanism which our own regime could internalise. As an imagination, as a drama of public spaces, as a theory of representativeness, republican India is, sadly, on the decline. We need a new battle hymn of the Republic.

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