Shiv Visvanathan on democracy, dissent and search for new alternatives
Search for a democracy of alternatives creates an alternative vision and alternative politics. Here are some recent suggestions which would be exciting for future but are alien to the current regime
Ever since the results of the 2019 election were declared on May 23, I have been getting messages from different people saying they are depressed, even feeling helpless. Something about the mathematics of the victory seemed surreal enough to make one ask whether it is a result of a cascading of machines rather than an avalanche of people.
As shock subsides to analysis, my friends become more reflective and ask what was it they missed out. Has the economics of agriculture, the idiocy of demonetisation stopped making sense? Are we so entranced with the nation state and its paraphernalia of security that we have become hostile to peace? One recognises the power of majoritarian logic but one feels it has no sense of collective justice.
It is as if democracy as a plural process and elections as a competitive game have become separate processes, where majoritarianism as a Hinduised small town mentality challenges the very ideals of the national movement. How does one stand up to all this without losing hope and create a sense of community? It is clear that a new kind of battle is developing today where an Idea of India needs to be reinvented. How does one go back to create an opposition to a majoritarian India realising that Modi, Trump, Putin, Abe are but mirrors of each other? One must admit that this depression has a global quality. Our depression itself becomes a global drama, requiring a larger theatre of reflection.
One cannot begin with the party or with ideology. Ideologies whether left or liberal have failed, dismissed as elitist configurations without any sense of grounding. Worse, the left looks irrelevant today. It needs to reinvent the language of justice, of creative citizenship beyond the idioms of the old Marxism, or the redundancy of an empty secularism. One does not lose one’s sense of vision, but one reinvents it, relives it, seeing the decade ahead as a process of experiment, a search for a new language, a more durable ethics, a more meaningful dialogue.
The party as an organisation has become an enclave of families, a ghettoised piece of nostalgia, or an embodiment of narcissism. One has to begin with a different sense of the public emphasising an openness of discussion. In this context, it is the civil society that has to carry the seeds of the opposition. It is also the civil society that has taken a battering from the BJP which has questioned the very authenticity of the idea. As a regime, the BJP feels the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Sena and others of its ilk are its extensions. The civil society becomes redundant. The NGO is treated as dispensable and the University is portrayed as suspect. It is the very fragility of the civil society that demands cure and reconstruction.
The civil society has to see itself as a set of decentralised fragments networking together to create an alternative commons of ideas. Our strength and power lie in the very idea of culture, our commitment to diversity and conversation. It is the argumentative Indian that has to challenge the regime and the adda becomes the first site of dissent.
This is critical because the regime cannot stand argument or the civic life of conversation treating both of them as anti-national. We as members of the civil society have to face the fact that the only way of being Indian in its myriad incarcerations is to be anti-national. The language of the nation state has become univocal, forcing ideas to march in uniform.
The civil society has to create a costume ball of ideas, a carnival of dissent to the notion that ideas can wear jack boots. An idea is an invitation to a new civics, an invention of new possibilities while a nation state has become an exercise in mediocre repetition. One has to just compare the music of peace with the predictability of the notions of security, development and patriotism. The piety of these words hides their coercive power. One must, in fact, challenge the genocidal vocabulary of the nation state.
One begins at the margins of the Indian society, recognising that the margin is a subcontinent of its own, one incorporates the marginal, the minority, the vulnerable, the defeated and the obsolescent to create an alternative scenario of possibilities. The acronym TINA (there is no alternative) reveals a poverty of thoughts not of alternatives.
Alternatives abound in India. They exist in the domain of religion, folklore, in the marginalised debates on socialism, in the tribal and folk imagination, in the work of a generation of scientists and social scientists. Our social movements like Chipko, the Anti-dam movements at Narmada, our forest movements, our battle to preserve languages, have also added to this imagination. TINA is a cry to eliminate alternatives because Modi is mediocre before them. Modi and his regime appear inevitable only when we legislate away the legacy of alternative imaginations India possesses.
The search for a democracy of alternatives creates an alternative vision and an alternative politics. Here are some recent suggestions which would be exciting for the future but are alien to the current regime.
Can we think of a Dalit vision of a city? There are hints of it in the work of activists like the Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson. Once Wilson commented candidly that Swacch Andolan will make no sense as long as it black boxes the septic tank and the scavenger. The deodorised elite of the city needs an education in the city as a sensorium. How does one build a city which is home to the Dalit imagination?
The regime has ignored drought and the civics of farming. Scholars and activists working with the peasant groups and movements for diversity have created an alternative politics around food. One can think of a range of work from Devender Sharma, Kavita Kurugunti and Vandana Shiva. Can we create policy documents around these alternative imaginations? The mining mafias in Karnataka and the corporations controlling mining are a part of this regime. Can the civil society create new experiments that will challenge the crony capitalism of this regime?
The development model of this regime is hostile to nature. Can we start a movement like the Maoris in New Zealand to represent nature in the Constitution? The recent move by Australian aboriginals to force Australia to adhere to Climate Change restrictions is another example. May be civil society can force our regime to respond to the Anthropocene by filing an RTI on the Anthropocene. One has to grasp the impact of Climate Change on the marginal communities.
The civil society as an inventive opposition can thus raise issues this regime has been deaf to. Its interventions revive what the political scientists like Rajni Kothari dubbed the politics of the non-party process. Once civil society comes alive, old parties can respond. The hybridity between them will reinvent democracy again.
One has to stop thinking of the idea of the opposition in negative terms. Democracy without dialogue and opposition is incomplete. It is time we see majoritarianism as a fragmentary politics and return to the holism of the future. In this lies the challenge of the future.