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Serial authoritarianism picks out targets one by one, and tires out challenges

The episode featuring sedition charges against eminent writers and directors — now belatedly withdrawn — is a reminder of the peculiar nature of the crisis of liberal institutionalism in India.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: October 10, 2019 9:52:48 am
Sedition against celebrities, Narendra Modi, Modi lynching letter, FIR against celebrities, celebrities letter on mob lynching, Ramachandra Guha, Ramachandra Guha FIR, Shyam Benegal, Lynching letter Modi, Bihar The protest against civic oppression does not have a focal point. Nationalism has a single focal point, one thing that keeps BJP supporters and organisations united.

The noose is tightening around all independent institutions in India. The episode featuring sedition charges against eminent writers and directors — now belatedly withdrawn — is a reminder of the peculiar nature of the crisis of liberal institutionalism in India. The true register of the crisis is not that liberal ideas might be losing, or that elites identified with liberalism might be discredited. Both those phenomena have occurred in the past. What is new is the choking up of the channels of protest in the time of civic oppression. Where does a politics of resistance to civic oppression go?

We cannot rely on the law. A liberal polity relies on unglamorous institutions and processes to keep open the windows of light against the darkness of untrammelled power. We have often relied on some putative motivating power of the law to deliver a modicum of protection, if not justice. The law has often disappointed deeply; and it often protects elites more than others. But the cowardly, almost impeachable, abdication of the judiciary in the face of threats to civil liberties has now made an appeal to the law akin to an appeal to the majestic benevolence of an odd judge at best, and a laughing joke at worst.

We cannot rely on discussion. The liberal faith in discussion is not so much that liberal ideas might win, as it is a faith that there is something addictive about the commitment to discussion itself; it is the habit itself that is the triumph of a liberal sensibility. This is why authoritarian politics disdains discussion. Again, this space will privilege some more than others, but its availability is a form of insurance against worse evils. So long as there is a commitment to “politics through speech,” some basic norms of reciprocity will be preserved. But the idea of public discussion is itself under severe threat. There is direct intimidation using law and violence. The main channels of public debate — the media — are now, for the most part, supply-side driven propaganda. Social media can accelerate tribalisation even faster than it accelerates democratisation.

We cannot rely on artfully using fragmentation of power. Let power check power. But the fragmentation of power that we took for granted as a check against undue concentration no longer holds. Regional parties are as likely to navigate with this authoritarianism, as against it. India’s fragmented social identities are now available for new forms of reconfiguration in the nationalist project; they are fuelling nationalism as much as they are resisting it. In any case, a fatalistic belief in sociological determinism to save us was the Left’s version of anti politics, as if there were ready-made coalitions of minorities and other oppressed groups who will automatically appear to resist.

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But if social power is not fragmented, in the same way neither is the power of money — Indian capital was seldom a defender of liberty. But now its taciturn silences are being replaced by a demonstrable alignment with not just state power, but the ideology of the state. It is having to devote all its capital, political funding, philanthropic commitment, media ownership, and even its symbolic capital, to the BJP and RSS. The BJP’s insurgency against the Congress was always sustained by deep material support, from Nusli Wadia in the Eighties to regional capitalists more recently. No opposition, political or in civil society, can now count on that kind of material support.

It is undeniable that advocates of liberal institutionalism in India have always been uncomfortable with the grammar of civic protest. The preference for process over protest, discussion over organisation, law over civil disobedience, order over a fear of anarchy, petition over movement, individual authenticity over social solidarity, leaves it open both to the charge of passivity and elitism. But it could survive these preferences when the institutional windows through which this sensibility could do some moderate work, were open. But that time seems to be long gone.

It is a fair criticism of liberals that they have seldom aligned with social movements: Farmers, labour, Adivasis, Dalit etc. Often, they have worked against them, in weakening the legitimacy of their claims. In the lead up to protests against the Emergency, many of these movements were the disruptors that fuelled a general sense of discontent. But now there are two challenges that make it difficult to enlist these demands in a broad-based protest against civic oppression. There is no mechanism by which these movements translate into electoral politics and prove a threat to the ruling party. And, it is actually easy for the government to satiate the demands that fuel these movements. For instance, each time there is the hope that Dalit discontent will translate into a movement, whether over SC Atrocities Act or something else, the government can satiate demands; each time there is a farmers’ movement, the government can announce a policy change. A movement centred on policy change does not necessarily translate into a movement for defending civic freedom. That is how the government has outmanoeuvred those who thought social discontent will erupt.


The protest against civic oppression does not have a focal point. Nationalism has a single focal point, one thing that keeps BJP supporters and organisations united. Gandhi’s organisational acumen, feel for organisation and exemplarity is invoked a lot these days. But it is sobering that even those techniques worked largely in the context of nationalism. Civic freedom does not seem to give that focal point for this reason. The government engages in what you might call serial authoritarianism, picking out targets one by one. The advantage of this strategy is not just that others are complacent that they will not be the victims of civic oppression. It is also that it tires out protest, by making each transgression require a separate and discrete form of protest. So we don’t yet have a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. What we have are protests against individual transgressions — sedition, lynching, NRC, Kashmir. These are still seen as individual transgressions in a system that is still, overall, legitimate.

But even as we prepare our legal challenges, write in public, organise protests, mobilise and look for slivers of social resistance that can be harnessed in the service of civic freedom, we should be prepared that things will have to get worse before they get better. After all, if we still have the luxury of acting as if the system is legitimate, the system will hoist us with our own petard of legitimacy. This is not a counsel of despair, only an analytic judgement, that the crisis will have to be projected as deep, systemic and wide-ranging, before resistance finds a focal point.

This article first appeared in the October 10, 2019 print edition under the title ‘The test in protest’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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First published on: 10-10-2019 at 04:04:20 am
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