The nature of Indian democracy — its constitutional guarantees and the duties of those who govern — is based upon the figure of the ordinary person. Historically, the personification of ordinariness emerged from the national movement and took concrete shape in the immediate post-colonial period. Independent India’s policies of development and growth — whether the “socialist” model was flawed or not is a different issue — were specifically focussed on those at the margins of economic and social boundaries. Ambedkar spoke out on behalf of women and Dalits, Lal Bahadur Shastri coined “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” and Indira Gandhi’s slogan “Garibi Hatao” foregrounded a very specific Indian as the object of state policy. The ordinary citizen was an empirical entity.
In the present time, the idea of the ordinary Indian has shifted. He (we continue to imagine citizenship in gendered terms) is now part of a new imagination and his ordinariness is quite different from that of the earlier one. The making of a new idea of the ordinary citizen also lies at the heart of some of the most significant political and cultural processes of our time.
The first aspect of the new ordinary citizen is the changing nature of perceptions of victimhood. It is now middle-class people who tend to think of themselves as victims: They pay taxes and the poor don’t; they pay for electricity and the poor steal it; and that they have been victims of both the reservation policies and “minority appeasement”. The empirically poor are no longer regarded as victims of social and historical circumstance or as deserving of any special measures to improve their lot. There are unlikely to be any political consequences for the government’s stand that it has no data on COVID-related job losses. Or, when the body of a Dalit rape victim is cremated without her family’s permission. They are no longer the ordinary citizens.
We are in the middle of a new nationalism of ordinariness, driven by an altered politics of victimhood. Within this logic, it is possible to convince around 85 per cent of the population that they are — or may become — the victim of cultural assault and that the majority religion is under threat. So, the next category of new victims are Hindus. They are also the new ordinary citizens who have, thus far, had to put up with “minority appeasement”. Muslims who protest against a law they may disagree with are no longer a category of ordinary citizens with grievances. They and those who support them are the opposite of citizens — anti-nationals. In this climate of new ordinariness — which is linked to a new national identity — filmmakers, activists and academics can be investigated for holding opinions that do not tally with official ones. They too are not ordinary citizens.
The cult of new ordinariness appears to have taken a strong grip across a number of institutions that, in a democracy, have the serious responsibility of protecting empirical victims from the imagined ones. Courts of law are the most significant. A court is intended to be a social sieve, intended to sift and evaluate claims of injury and harm. Of course, they do not always work in anything like a perfect manner, but in societies where public opinion tends to be both undemocratic and inclined towards the status-quo, their role as social scrutineers is invaluable. Judges are human but the most admirable among them are those whose humanity lies in not being swayed by majority public opinion.
However, when the legal system uncritically accepts imagined rather than empirical definitions of ordinariness and victimhood, it takes part in the process of institutionalising social myths. It becomes complicit in tolerating a situation where the new ordinary citizens — politicians who might incite a crowd to kill those of another religion — become exempt from acts of law. It simultaneously creates a population of pseudo-citizens who, because of their “false” claims to being ordinary, are seen to deserve the violence that might come their way. Those who might speak on their behalf also become liable to be denied the protection of the law.
In the era of the new ordinary citizen — emboldened because he is now convinced that past governments have treated him unfairly — matters that affect everyday life become irrelevant. Jobs, economic growth and welfare, and issues of improved access to resources no longer occupy centre stage. The new nationalism is everything: It is a salve for apparent past wrongs and politicians who wish to are easily able to use it towards political gain.
Following historian Benedict Anderson’s lead, it has become common to accept that nationalism comes about through “imagining” a community of shared identity. However, it is, actually, the new nationalism of ordinariness that is genuinely an exercise in nationalism of the imagination. Through multiple processes of re-defining those who have “actually” suffered and others who have benefitted from false claims to suffering, it imagines into reality an entirely new subject around whom a new national consciousness is to be built. And the historically marginalised become pretenders to ordinariness.
The new ordinariness is the basis of majoritarianism in the name of the ordinary person. It has historical precedence as well as contemporary resonances in other parts of the world. It is popular because it does not ask that we undertake the difficult task of thinking about what makes everyday life difficult and material advancement slow and unequal. It simply foregrounds the idea that someone else has benefitted at our cost. And it does this in the name of personal identity. A political strategy that seeks to counter the politics of social and religious divisiveness must both understand the new politics of ordinariness as well as find ways of dealing with it. The commitment to constitutional values and safeguards is only one side of understanding the functioning of a democracy. The other is an understanding of the nature of the “people” and the shifting claims of ordinariness.
The writer is British Academy Global Professor University College London and Professor of Sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
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