It is said that you don’t know whether you actually have faith, unless that faith is genuinely tested. Democracy perhaps always has to be nourished as much by faith as by certainty. But the commitment to the two central pillars of democracy — freedom and fraternity — is being tested like never before. Even though elections remain an Indian religion in their own right, it is producing its own species of disillusionment from a variety of sources. The common theme is that the people legitimise us, but they also stand in our way. India’s elites have been intermittently impatient with this democracy. Its noise, its energy, its messiness, its deference to constitutional form, is seen to stand in the way of an economic utopia that might be unleashed if only democracy could get out of the way. Many probably thought this; now we can more shamelessly and frankly say this. This is elite contempt of institutional checks and balances, protest and dissent, now cloaked in the higher purpose of economic growth. If only we could dispense with the people.
But there are other sources as well. At one level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi exults in popular acclamation. The language of electoral legitimation, the claim that the people stand behind him is important to his power and self-image; so important that he will go to any lengths to secure it. The rhetorical invocation of the power of ordinary people is ubiquitous. It is often not noticed enough, but his invocation of the people (the power of one hundred and twenty-five crore), and its electoral potency, is often in almost a prophetic mode. This is the case in three senses.
He exemplifies the core of the prophetic mode, which is the disguising of a failure. As the political theorist, Eric Voegelin, once wrote in a totally different context, “precisely when its dubiousness as a pragmatic record is recognised, the narrative reveals its function in creating a people in politics, and history.” It is not the practical record, it is the ability to occupy the space of prophetic deliverance in the face of failure that is the attraction. This is linked to a second theme: That of sacrifice — the people not just as objects to be served, but to be elevated by enlisting them in a higher cause. And the third theme is the invocation of constant danger: This project of the redemption of the people is always at risk from an enemy. The narrative of redemption needs an enemy, against which to define itself, to get charged; if there isn’t one, one will be invented for you.
This deeply charged invocation of the people has been a disruptive force in a democracy. It is otiose to deny its ability to politically mobilise, especially in the absence of any counter prophetic narrative that is more elevating. But its overwhelming danger should be apparent. For one thing, the people in this construction are an abstraction, unified and marching to the same drum beat. The minute any actual people assert their reservations, express their individuality, or pose pragmatic facts against wild prophecy, they are immediately branded as being outside of the pale of the people, they are the anti-nationals. So the rhetoric of the people can be turned against groups of actual people, one at a time. It is an enemy of both freedom and fraternity.
It is a threat to individual freedom because it has no commitment to its value. Concrete individuals, with their own histories and concerns, temperament and ambitions, loves and identities, are of no interest and are a threat, if they are not drum beating for the prophetic cause. It is an enemy of whatever fraternity exists, because it is deeply communal: The only deliverance it can promise is the dominance of that ugly construct, Hindutva, whose content is nothing but the raw assertion of power.
But if the BJP ultimately mobilises the people, but then converts them into an abstraction that can be deployed for violent purposes, the BJP’s critics also have a kind of problem with the people. This is true in both political and non-political circles. To put it bluntly, the problem can be put this way. In the wake of the BJP’s growing success and the ascendancy of Hindutva, there is a new kind of misanthropy towards the people. If some elites are embarrassed that the people don’t understand economic development, others are horrified that large numbers have thrown in their lot with the BJP. This worry might be understandable, but it is a challenge for democracy. Some might console themselves that the people might have been duped by unfair means. But the refrain you constantly hear, that “India has changed”, is not meant so much as a description as an alibi, as if to say it is going to be difficult to actually redeem the people.
This misanthropy is, of course, politically self-defeating. Exuding the sense that people are dupes or evil is not a propitious starting point for a democracy, and only reinforces the political pathologies it is meant to encounter. When there are shards of resistance, a CAA movement or a Punjab farmers’ movement, an occasional local electoral victory, the Opposition suddenly embraces the people in all its glory. But the blunt truth is that it has been difficult to translate these movements into a broader fraternity or political coalition. And as soon as they are managed, repressed, or negotiated, we will go back to wondering what the people want. The truth is we have not learnt a political language that can thread the needle of calling out the authoritarian and communal poison now in our democracy, without at the same time indicting the people. We exude the paradoxical air of fighting for democracy without faith in the people.
Outside of political contexts there is enough vitality, creativity and reciprocity, where the people are expressing themselves in all their concreteness, individuality and complexity, more than enough to sustain faith in the face of political disillusionment. But we will need a new mode of conversation to capture that. T S Eliot once wrote that “last year’s words belong to last year’s language; and next year’s words await another voice.”
So the question for Indian democracy is: In which language will we learn to speak of the people where we don’t avoid the horrifying impasse we are at? The BJP claims to speak the language of the people without democracy, and the Opposition wants to speak the language of democracy without the people. Happy New Year.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2021 under the title ‘Listen for a voice’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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