Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Crisis of Indian Democracy

Sanjay Kumar


Indian democracy faces  an unprecedented crisis. We do not have to get into debates about whether the current regime is fascist, or not. It is clearly and cleverly, creating, as well egging on, a majoritarian politics, which for instance calls upon 'people of India' to target their selected enemies; minorities, leftists, anti-national liberals, etc.  What Nehru had warned against, a majority communalism masquerading as nationalism, is growing right before our eyes. This is no longer a possible conspiracy, or a plan of Nagpur headquarters, but an embodied reality in terms of popular attitudes, modes of behaviour and values. On the other hand, the Modi government is implementing many anti-people economic and social policies. But somehow the popular mobilisations against those are not able to cross a critical mass. We can compare and contrast the situation with Emergency when a particular leader and the state power became the symbol of anti people authoritarianism. Then, the idea that given a chance people will throw out the authoritarian leader seemed reasonable; and that is how indeed it turned out in 1977 elections. Now, the nature and modus operandi of 'authoritarianism' are different. How do you challenge a 'popular' authoritarianism, whose kit bag also contains legitimate 'democratic' tools. In any democratic project, it is ultimately the people themselves who assert their democratic rights and make society and state democratic. How do we address the people who are supporting anti-democratic politics. Old assumptions and methods will not work. It seems democratic politics now has to be 'molecular', work at micro-level, make people confront their own attitudes, modes of behaviour, and long held beliefs. At the other level, we have to unpack deeper and more rooted contradictions of the Modi regime with the people of India. Of course, all this is easier said than done. However, what we can call the 'self criticism' of the democracy in India, a self awareness of its blind spots  and limitations, can be a first constructive step.

So what are these blind spots and limitations? We can only briefly touch some of them here. Our understanding about democracy in India has generally worked on a simplistic notion of people, which can best be called populist. While presenting the draft of the constitution Dr Ambedkar had famously warned about the health and future of the plant on democracy in a social soil which was deeply anti democratic. He most likely had feudal, casteist, partiarchal hold overs in mind, which had made Indian society one of the most unequal and dehumanising in human history. People like Dr Ambedkar were deeply aware that in a society like India democracy will not be a spontaneous development. It was not that once a liberal democratic constitution is in place, the state and society will merrily start chugging along the path of democracy. We all know how the power of office (whose other name is corruption), money, and muscle have thrived in our society since independence. We have come to accept a narrow definition of democracy, which is mainly centered on regular elections and a modicum of freedom of expression and association for a small, relatively privileged minority. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Indians have been deprived of even basic citizenship rights, except of course the right to vote. Actually, the relatively small privileged minority also does not interact with state as citizens.  

There is no doubt that the past nearly seventy years of electoral democracy have expanded and deepened the stake people feel in the elected governments. Over time, many oppressed and deprived sections of society, which could not vote in  earlier  elections, have been mobilised, and in India we actually witness an interesting phenomenon that larger percentages of deprived and oppressed people vote than the privileged and the rich. Another interesting phenomenon is that this mobilisation has occurred at the level of community, mainly caste. It has been generally believed that participation of oppressed castes has broadened and deepened democracy in India. While this is true in its own special way, another parallel process got overlooked. All communities which become active during elections are actually 'created' communities, called into  action by leaders, parties and their ground level workers. If communities like these become the main mode of address to an average voter, then it is only a matter of time that an organisation gets successful  in mobilising the largest such 'community' , the Hindu religious community. This follows from the logic of the 'arithmetic' of electoral politics in our country. For some time many of us had thought that the pluralities of caste, language, and regional variations in India will not allow mobilisation of people around a monolithic Hindutva identity to be successful. Actually, it seems that in states like Asom and UP, Hindutva has gone around this problem. In UP it managed to mobolise non Jatav dalits and non Yadav OBCs by specifically targeting them under an the over all ideological hegemony of upper castes. In the process it managed to disempower nearly 18% Muslim voters. Actually this exercise of dis empowering a significant minority is not unique to India. In the US, in the past four decades, the Republican Party has evolved a programme which systematically disregards the interests to 12 percent African Americans. And, in all presidential elections the majority of white voters have always voted for republican candidates. This was the case even during 'landslide' Obama victories.

Among the blind spots of Indian democracy we must also touch upon its hugely compromising notion and practice of secularism. The unique brand of secularism in India has been called 'sarv dharm sambhav', which literally translates as equal attitude towards all religions. Opportunistic politicians have translated it to 'equal respect for all religions'. An idea like the latter is  completely against the spirit of secularism. Secularism in a democracy has two assumptions. One, the fundamental democratic values, those of equality and fundamental rights, are not based upon any religious idea. The people who give themselves a constitution do not derive this power from authority of any religious belief. In this sense the basic democratic values are secular. The second principle, that a secular state will not prefer any religion over others, is a requirement of the principle of equality. A consequence of the secular basis of democracy is that any religious practice which violate these principles, for instance the principle of equality, can be outlawed. No religious belief can sanction inequality. Indian state did outlaw untouchability, even though for many Hindus it was an article of faith. So a secular democratic state power can not follow a formula like equal respect, or equal attitude towards all religions. Yet it does not  mean that secularism is anti religion. It just does not entertain any religious sanction in its domain. It does not interfere in the sphere of personal beliefs, nor  does it deny believers the right to associate on the basis of their religion.


Finally, the vexed relationship of caste in India with democracy need to be addressed. The electoral democracy has largely succeeded in reducing struggles against caste oppression to a politics of representation. While the reality is that in the era of electoral democracy and reservations for oppressed castes in state jobs and educational institutions, caste inequalities morphed into newer forms, which the politics of representation fully integrated into existing structures is often unable to address. It is in this regard that Rohith Vemula's suicide note becomes an important window to the lived reality of politically and socially conscious Dalit youth. Second, an important observation of Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste is that as long as Hindus remain caste ridden, Hindu society is actually not a society. Caste fragments, and arranges society hierarchically so that any large scale unity becomes difficult. A public sphere, in which any individual rights bearing citizen interacts with others as their equal, is an important part of  any democratic society. Continuing salience of caste in Indian society has limited and compromised the possibilities of public sphere in India?

The text is based upon author's presentation at a round table on the same title organised by People's Alliance for Democracy and Secularism on 15th July, 2017. 

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