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Against complacency

There are enough systemic and institutional tools available to any regime that are entirely dependent on how malignant the executive allows them to become.

Varshney lays out three political arguments: inner truths or androoni sach, institutional approach or sansthayik vichardhaara, and weak institutions or kamzor sansthayen.  Varshney lays out three political arguments: inner truths or androoni sach, institutional approach or sansthayik vichardhaara, and weak institutions or kamzor sansthayen.

BY: Rajshree Chandra

There are enough systemic and institutional tools available to any regime that are entirely dependent on how malignant the executive allows them to become.

Ashutosh Varshney begins his piece, ‘Modi, on balance’ (IE, April 29), by stating that he fundamentally disagrees with polarised views on Modi, and that there may not be reason enough to be either deeply anxious or over exuberant. He says, “the discipline of political science, which I have taught for two decades, fundamentally disagrees with this view”.

As a student of political science, I have often found myself constrained by its continued exuberance about “structural functional” theories.

These regard a political system to be a sum total of structures (institutions), their functions, the ability of democratic institutions to process levels of mobilisations and demands that arise from society in general.

Varshney lays out three political arguments: inner truths or androoni sach, institutional approach or sansthayik vichardhaara, and weak institutions or kamzor sansthayen.

All three arguments address what op-ed columns routinely conflate as the “unsubstantiated paranoia” that India will become a fascist state or, as in this piece, “India will become a greater Gujarat”. The three reasons given by Varshney why this will not be the case is essentially because a political leader has to work “with and through institutions”; that the “inner truths”, the political and ideological dispensations of a leader like Modi — for instance, his and his party’s almost symbiotic RSS connections, their Hindu nationalist ideology — will always get tamed through institutional checks and balances. Even if we were to argue that some institutions are weak, Varshney points out that it is only the institutions directly under the executive that are weak. The ones outside of it — the Supreme Court, EC, Parliament and the powerful CAG — will prevent a lapse into authoritarian leadership of any kind.

But, there are three aspects of parliamentary democracy that Varshney ignores. First, the Indian executive is a parliamentary executive and it has the potential to exercise great influence over the legislative process, particularly if the party in power has a working majority. The outcome of legislative activity is then dependent on the political will, dispensations and ideologies of the government. There is enough reason to believe that, while the plank of developmentalism might displace the earlier welfarist orientation, the aggressive nationalist posturing might lead to an intensification of the already harsh terrain of anti-terror, sedition, censorship laws that may find opportune extensions into dissent management.

Who is to say that the government-in-waiting will not draw from the climate of aggressive nationalist posturing and not enact more dissent management laws? A second point that Varshney ignores is the role of the executive. It is not just the weakness of the institutions under executive control that is a problem; it is also the implementational role of the executive. There are enough systemic and institutional tools available to any regime — Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Section 295, 124A IPC, Official Secrets Act, Cinematograph Act — that are entirely dependent on how malignant the executive allows them to become. Importantly, you don’t even need the disruption of institutions to achieve these. The institutional framework itself has the potential to yield space for these trends.

A third aspect Varshney disregards is that institutions in a democracy function within a culture of politics. It is this culture that propels them to function either maximally or minimally within the same institutional architecture. For institutions to function maximally so as to expand the substantive content of democracy, they need to be supported by a democratic political culture. In its absence, the parliamentary system may endure, but a political culture that allows for dissent and “talking back” will not.

Too much focus is being placed on what is being said in election rallies — how overt communal mobilisation is not taking place, how the “temple” word is seldom used except by the fringe elements, how Modi’s rhetoric has been forced to be sanitised, thanks to the institutional strength of electoral politics. Such a focus detracts attention from what was famously stated by Michel Foucault, “but what is being said in what is being said?” It detracts attention from all those elements of political culture that have an indeterminate existence in free speech, free expression, women’s freedoms and several uncounted democratic etiquettes that do not want to be hostage to a homogenised idea of Indian/ majoritarian/ Hindu culture.

Political rhetoric is as much defined by what is being said as by what is not being said. One might argue, as does Varshney in his earlier pieces, that the part omitted from Modi’s rhetoric is a measure of the institutional success of democracy, the institutions of elections being one of the taming agents. Any study of language or signs needs to take into account not just what is audible and visible, but also what is latent and obscured.

It is both premature, and in a sense ahistorical, to see these speech acts as inaugurating an enduring centrist shift in Modi’s ruling stance. It is entirely plausible that the shift in the deployed rhetoric could well be a strategic position of manoeuvre, and that it is not really a shift but a masquerade. No analysis that augurs the future can disregard the core ideology and culture that defines the BJP.

Whether it is the long history of essentialist and gendered invocations of bhartiyata, sanskriti or Hindutva, they evoke images, threats and perceptions of exclusions.

One might argue that there will always be dissenting opinions in every regime and that this dissension is not peculiar to Modi. However, the key issue is not the presence of dissent but the threat the dissenting parties perceive and expect under Modi and his BJP. To say modes of handling this dissent will get more democratised is to ignore the space that institutions have within them for subverting democratic procedures. We have a lot to worry about, Professor Varshney: not just the caution you choose of how fringe elements are tackled by the BJP once, and if, it comes to power.

The writer is a post doctoral fellow at Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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