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There is the usual frenzy of punditry as India approaches its elections. Almost all of it begins with the expression of a widespread feeling that the Congress has finally petered out of energy, lost its capacity for innovative policymaking as well as the drive of its leadership (of the sort that Sonia Gandhi surprised everyone by unleashing in the 2004 elections), and has revealed, more than ever before, its susceptibility to the lucre of corruption. The chatter then moves to discussing the excitement offered by the alternatives of Narendra Modi (waiting to outflank the Congress from the right with policies — if that can be imagined — even more neoliberal than those of Manmohan Singh and his economic advisors), or of the Aam Aadmi Party (with its promise of little more than the end of corruption and the reduction of the cost of some necessities), or of the various other more familiar regional parties. Chiming in is the speculation about the principled and unprincipled coalitional possibilities that the election results are bound to generate.
It is not easy in the midst of this noise, which I am not wholly deriding for it is part of the noise of democracy, to keep one’s eye focused on the more fundamental issues at stake. After all, democracy, in the substantial sense of the term, is the role played by the people of a country in shaping the decisions that affect the fundamental aspects of their material and spiritual lives. Representative politics is one important element that allows them to do this, and elections are the procedural path by which representation in governance is established. Given this dialectical relation between the substance and procedure of democracy, two crucial questions arise: Is what is on offer to ordinary people in elections addressing the fundamental aspects of their lives? And are ordinary people cognitively well prepared to assess the options on offer to them in a way that will promote what they wish for their material and spiritual wellbeing? It is only when these two questions are affirmatively answered that one can be assured that the procedures of democracy will yield its substance as an outcome.
Let’s take the first question. In the United States, where I am domiciled, very little that makes for fundamental change in people’s lives gets onto the agenda of what is on offer in electoral politics. The two parties in the political arena merely represent competing “power elites”, to use a term of C. Wright Mills, and any basic opposition to this consensus of elite (mostly corporate) power has always come not from policies creatively formulated in the corridors of power by elected leaders, but from movements on the street which have occasionally forced elected leaders to make important changes — such as the labour movements of the 1930s or the civil rights and women’s movements of a few decades later. India, by contrast, has the distinct advantage of having a multiparty political system and so, even if there is a consensus among two of the major parties, there are others which may present alternatives outside the consensus, so long as the people are cognitively prepared to see the merit in the alternatives and their minds are not entirely shaped by the ideologies and ways of thinking underlying the consensus itself.
That brings us to the second question. The outcome of the 2004 elections in India is a telling example of what is at issue here. It is known that in the months prior to that election, pundits in the print and televised media were cheerleading for the utterly illusory claims of an emergent India under the policies that the government had been pursuing. Yet the government was defeated. In a sense, then, the mass of our people were saved by a combination of their illiteracy (the illusion of “India Shining” afflicted only the literate metropolitan classes who were cognitively fed by the media) and their knowledge of the causes of their own impoverished conditions, thereby revealing that everyday political knowledge and media literacy are by no means the same thing. Cognitive preparedness for democratic participation depends on such political knowledge, not attentiveness to the expertise of editorialists and think-tanks. And in this regard too, the US is worse off because the mainstream media there — both the highbrow national media and the local tabloids — controlled as it is by large corporate conglomerates, more or less entirely shapes the political cognition of the mass of ordinary people.
On both questions, then, the US fares badly. And to hark back to the distinction I had made earlier, that is why the outcomes of the procedural aspects of its democracy seldom serve its substantial aspect well, as a result of which the fundamental interests of ordinary people are poorly reflected in election outcomes. If, as I’ve suggested, on both these questions, India seems to be better off in the prospects for a substantial democracy, why is it that one is nevertheless stricken by a pessimism about the months ahead?
I think the answer lies in the tragic weakness of the only parties — the parties of the Left — that do address the most fundamental questions about the lives of ordinary people.
To begin with, there is the internecine rift between the insurgent left and the organised left, with the former committed only to the substantial aspects of democracy without any respect for the procedural path to its achievement, replacing it instead with some fantasy of mobilisation that is supposed to be inspired by isolated acts of violence, which often even target the organised left. On the other hand, there is the disarray of the organised left, defeated in the states in which it recently possessed power. The hard question is: what is the deepest source of its current weakness? If the pundits are to be believed in their constant scorn of the CPM, it is because the organised left is committed nostalgically to a conception of political economy that is several decades out of date. But the opposite is true; the real source of its weakness has been its refusal to keep faith with its own avowed commitment to the fundamental interests of ordinary people and to have instead embraced, to a considerable extent (especially in Bengal), the aspirations of the Congress and the BJP.
It remains a matter of as yet unanalysed importance what compelled a left party in power to abandon the policies it had traditionally been committed to, some of which (such as the early land reforms) had given it such lasting success for some decades. What in Centre-state relations, that is to say what, under the neoliberal dispensation adopted by the Centre, has compelled states to compete with each other for the delusional gains of such economic policies for their regions? This is a question that needs to be carefully analysed. The left must find a theoretical as well as practical stance against what generates these compulsions. Nothing else could revive the strength of the left in the regions where it still has some influence and allow it to grow in other remgions of the country; and, in turn, nothing else could improve the prospects of a substantial democracy in India.
I don’t doubt that what I have briefly said here will be dismissed as nostalgia for a politics of a bygone age. But there is nothing nostalgic about it. The outcome of the elections in 2004 showed that the people were appealing to their current instincts and quotidian political knowledges (not any bygone ideology) to reject the charms of a neoliberal political economy. It is those instincts and knowledges on which the left has traditionally constructed (and must continue to construct) its theoretical and practical stances. And, in any case, we must not forget that the most creative minds and practitioners in the Renaissance who eventually triumphed were dismissed by mediaeval scholars for being afflicted by a nostalgia for a bygone classical age.
The writer is Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in philosophy and director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University, US