Today democracy has been reduced to a number game; a new imagination is needed

Our democracy did not evoke a battle of parties but a celebration of ideas, of plurality or difference

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Shiv Visvanathan

One of the most surreal things about the recent election is not the result itself. The numbers were weird and not easy to explain. To attribute it to the occult power of Amit Shah’s psephology was not enough. It needed a deeper sense of the Indian unconscious licking old wounds with an obsessive delight. What was even more surprising was the way people responded to the election result. For a day or two, dissenting and oppositional groups were struck with awe. I know many from minority groups who wanted to migrate. This was not the India they had dreamt of or were even comfortable with. But the horror lasted for a few days and normalcy reigned again. One realised that people had decided to adapt, to live in private worlds and avoid public spaces. An age of conformity had arrived. People felt it was best to adjust to power because there was a sense of permanence about this power. Their fatalism and their overt conformity conveyed a deeper sense of fear. It was a fear that began with the definition of the word ‘democracy’.

Indians always boasted of their democracy and wore it like a badge. Our democracy did not evoke a battle of parties but a celebration of ideas and public spaces, of plurality or difference. It was a democracy that encompassed more than the dry mechanics of an electoral system. But today democracy has been reduced to a number game.

Today democracy no longer evokes pluralism or dissent. It refers to a crude majoritarianism which refers to a religious majority. Majoritarianism is more of governance by chorus. It allows for demagoguery. Worse, rule by threat becomes an everyday affair. Determining the citizenship of people belonging to a minority now is an invitation to join the so-called game of consensus building. The texture of democracy has become reductionistic and simplistic. One sees it in the poverty of Indian media. On our media, Modi and Amit Shah get iconic status. The opposition looks pathetic.

Sometimes, contexts can still maintain original possibilities. A sense of civilisation often provides values and value frames democracy has to contend with. But the impoverishment of our civilisations is part of the ruling party strategy. India was a collage of civilisations. Today, it is neither a dialogue of civilisations nor a dialogue of democracies. What we have is the cacophony of culture displaying its illiteracy by praising ancient science and reducing yoga from a philosophy to a rudimentary set of techniques. The tragedy today is that the nation state has overwhelmed the plurality of civilisations and democracy. Instead of the ethical and experimental possibilities of different religions, what we face is the drum beat of the nation state marshalled around concepts like security, patriotism, borders, nation state, creating a disciplinary regime that reinforces majoritarianism. The dialogue of civilisations which even China is now reviving is dead in India today. To the impoverishment of democracy, we now add the aridity of the nation state attuned to the univocal voice of security and the officialdom of patriotism.

The destruction sadly does not stop there. It goes deeper. Civil society and social movements have been completely emasculated. One is not merely talking of the death of trade unions. Today one confronts the imminent demise of the university as a domain of contending ideas. The university as a certifying institution might survive but the university as a celebration of dissenting academies are over. The RSS and Bajrang Dal have become surrogate civil societies and their grass roots impact often lets the majoritarian state operate seamlessly. There are two interesting indicators for this. Firstly, environmentalism which was a major focus for dissent in a development-obsessed society is today seen dismissively as anti-national. Secondly, dissent today is read as a law and order problem by the forces of majoritarianism. The celebration of dissent as a commons of margin, minority, defeated societies as seeding an alternative imagination has been abandoned. The stark fact of majoritarianism also reminds us of its sibling presence - violence. Violence more than corruption has become one of the most inventive forces in India. Violence today has acquired the normalcy of an electoral vote. Violence in fact is a ritual prelude to elections in many areas. What we are confronting is layers of violence. A sociology of these layers would reveal the presence of genocide, ecocidal displacement, the gulagisation of our people through the mechanism of national registers.

Violence expresses itself not merely through development and technology but in the very nature of a language where security allows for brutality against our people. One adds to all of this the violence of a language that is blind to suffering. We must consider an official celebratory statement that India plans to be a 3 trillion-Dollar economy. The word economy hence becomes an empty term. What kind of economy are we talking about? There is a necessity to disaggregate the informal economy, the forest economy, the coastline, the marginal and nomadic economies, not all of which are amenable to the enthusiasm of the economic indicators.

The challenge before us is formidable. We confront a majoritarian society, which is rampant as a nation state, but impoverished as a civilisation, a world where civil societies have been emasculated, where violence has acquired a banality, a normalcy which is frightening. One has to however realise that democracy is not just a mourning wall where we bewail the inevitability of majoritarianism. Democracy is also an invitation to invention, to new forms of creative dissent. It is now clear that we cannot immediately resume the battle in conventional terms of party, the logic of formal oppositions or even an appeal to human rights. We have to look at the world of alternatives, create ethical startups that offer a new imaginaries of alternatives. It will take time for middle class India to realise mobility and aspiration cannot sustain it. We need a democracy with institutional integrity, where ecology sustains livelihood, a constitution that is a trustee of the margins, a civil society where dissent is invented as a way of life. All this takes time and as critics, we must remain trustees of the memories and imaginations that sustain these alternative worlds. Deep down one begins with the story teller inventing a new world and the activist constructing it on the ground. Democracy needs a new imagination. The battle begins there.

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Published: 15 Aug 2019, 6:30 PM