Squeezing the juice out of ‘Democracy’

To ask ‘are we still democratic’ explains surreal state of our lives. Between mediocrity and majoritarianism, we have created new authoritarianism that has corroded imagination of democracy

 Squeezing the juice out of ‘Democracy’
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Shiv Visvanathan

The official idea of democracy has become a desiccated term. Political scientists and management experts have added to the aridity by fetishizing voting behavior and consumer choice. Democracy as a lived world is no longer analysed.

If democracy is still an electoral rule game, India might retain some semblance of the democratic system. However, even that system has been corrupted by majoritarianism. The challenge of democracy today is that it needs to be reinvented because the concepts that help it come together have collapsed.

Consider first the idea of citizenship; between CAA and COVID we have drained the sense of citizenship as a sense of dwelling. The two events show that citizenship in India is elusive. People in the informal economy have to be ‘regularised’ to be regarded as people. The COVID crisis showed that the migrant only retained a liminal form of citizenship. He was a creature unwelcome at his original home and treated ambiguously at the point of destination. The very spraying of migrants with chemicals, projected the migrant as vermin, subject to harassment by cops and clerks.

India seems to have created ‘citizenship’ minus the margins. And yet one must remember that India is a subcontinent of margins. The idea of the minority has also been rendered problematic. I remember at a recent seminar, a respected scholar turned to me and said, “I am tired to be a minority, I want the dignity to be human and the true hospitality of citizenship.”

The minority is seen as suspect and today the majority seems to be defining what is good citizenship for the minority. As a result, the minority as a group is perpetually suspect in a majoritarian society. In fact, our idea of democracy treats most people as suspects. There is neither the idea of trust nor of social contract. Majoritarian democracy creates rituals of suspicion which do not allow for the homecoming of citizenship.

Beyond minority and the migrant, there is a marginality of tribal and crafts societies. The ideology of industrialism and the rapacity of current economic theory, treats both as obsolescent groups. Development theory demands that these groups either become part of the main story or disappear. Our planners have no idea how tribes become vulnerable when nature is threatened and the forests disappear. Our regime does not see that tribes depend on forests for their livelihood and myths. We have hypothecated our forests to the corporations. The forest is no longer a home but just that many trees for paper and wood for construction.

There is even more invisible battle taking place with even more consequences. The destruction of the coastline, the decimation of livelihood along the sea is something our landlocked state hardly talks about.


A priest I interviewed after the Cochin cyclone said, “Delhi thinks from land to sea. Delhi has no imagination of the sea. The democracy of the sea is missing from our Constitution.” Corporations like Adanis are running rampage, while the regime stands indifferent to the sea as an imagination.

The craft society is another community that our regime is contemptuous of. Recently it erased the handloom and handicraft board, at a time when it should have confronted the handloom crisis. Oddly this government believes that the handloom is a sunset industry. It is an act of illiteracy which fails to realise that weaving sustains a community of 13 million people. A regime which seeks to destroy 13 million people is no democracy.

The sadness of India today is that uniformity of the nation state with concepts like patriotism, security and border have destroyed the plurality of nationalism and national movement, and the dialogic power of our civilisation.

Our regime has a sense of history which would embarrass a child’s textbook. In destroying the plural power of memory, we have created an ersatz memory which is communalist. The Ram Janambhoomi movement has transformed and banalised Lord Ram from a great exemplar to a positivist document. By merging the ideology of nation state and Hindutva, we have destroyed the pluralism that underwrote the genius of our democracy.

If one word defined Indian democracy, it was diversity. Democracy goes beyond the liberal acknowledgement of ‘the other’ to an epistemic grounding of difference. Democracy becomes a celebration of difference. This is what Madhav Gadgil, the ecologist, sought to emphasise when he said that diversity must inform development. Diversity creates the life-giving music of democracy so that it becomes a trusteeship of 150 thousand varieties of rice and 2000 oral languages.

India till today was an implicit contract between orality, texuality and digitality. We saw these mediums as simultaneous, not linear. Today we are destroying orality and memory to impoverish democracy. We have become information rich but memory poor, while destroying democracy as an imagination.

Our social scientists do not realise that violence has become the most inventive part of our society. The planned mob, the video killing, the destruction of craft, the displacement of tribes, the decline of fisheries, the ‘panopticonization’ of the north east through the imposition of AFSPA, all reveal that violence today is a way life. The policeman has created a Hobbesian state where brutality is a habit. By integrating internal and external security we have created the national security state which has decimated civil society.

Finally, our regime has brand, ideology and myth but lacks the ability to dream of alternatives. As a society our frames of thinking are mediocre. The weakness of dissent is staggering. To ask are we still democratic explains the surreal state of our lives. Between mediocrity and majoritarianism, we have created a new authoritarianism that has corroded the very imagination of democracy


(Dr Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Anthropologist and Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University)

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