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The 21st century challenge for democracy

Suhas Palshikar writes: A renewed public discourse around questions of its meaning, repertoire, purpose and limits will have to be enriched.

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: January 4, 2022 10:06:47 pm
The unexpected spread of democracy at the fag-end of the last century produced a global overuse of the term, denuding it of its meaning.

The New Year brings a challenge. Corrosion of democracy forms the backdrop to the 75th year of freedom, overshadowing the celebrations. The official website calls the moment “azadi ka amrit mahotsav”, though in the recent past, those talking of azadi were hounded as the tukde-tukde gang. Such is the fracture in our public psyche that azadi can be equated with an anti-national position on the one hand and on the other hand, a myopic view of azadi allows dismemberment of its core — democracy. The challenge, therefore, is to keep India’s democracy alive. Are we up to it?

The unexpected spread of democracy at the fag-end of the last century produced a global overuse of the term, denuding it of its meaning. Even as the industry of measuring and ranking democracies thrived, the practice of trading off democracy’s substance for its skeletal form became a booming business. Just as the “D” word became politically the most useful and used word, it also became so vague that its adversaries no longer needed to argue against it. Rather than anti-democratic arguments, we now witness the skillful taming of democracy.

In India, the taming of democracy is marked by three maladies. First, electoral majorities are understood to have elected a superhero with unbounded wisdom. The belief that the “king can do no wrong” would pale in the backdrop of faith in the leader’s motives and actions. The popular language of mandate becomes politically central to this phenomenon. Instead of electing (and changing) representatives responsible for governance, elections become the mythical ritual of coronation. While most parties are afflicted with this misconception and sundry representatives invoke it to justify their power and prestige, Narendra Modi has taken it to an unprecedented level. Not only has he assumed the role of being the representative of 125 crore people, he is also seen as the personification of popular will. This personification is then translated into legitimising a fundamental reworking not just of the physical structures of the polity, but its normative practices and ideological bases.

Two, electoral majorities are seen unabashedly as flowing from, and reflecting the majority of one community constructed from many sects and traditions. At an ideological level, attempts to conflate the nation with one community have gained ground. At a more practical level, the public sphere is seized with the issue of what we do with citizens not belonging to the majority faith. In governance terms, they are being pushed into the shadowy recesses of invisibility while in political terms, they are brought forward as enemies of the nation. This violent discourse produces a slippage of democratic rhetoric into nationalist rhetoric, sometimes juxtaposing the nation against democracy and sometimes conflating the national with the democratic.

Three, 21st century manipulations of democracy have almost successfully robbed people’s agency from democracy. An oversized image of the leader, claims of wisdom by the elected autocracy and consistent delegitimisation of any difference as anti-national have meant that the category of people exists as the symbolic legitimiser of power. People also exist as manufactured expressions of public unreason to be unleashed against opponents of the regime. But people as a democratic force do not exist or at least do not count for much.

All three afflictions have global parallels. They run deep in our polity and are shaping our political culture. Above all, they have democratic pretensions, which makes it tough to identify them, critique them and isolate them.

Democracies are adept at countering open attacks. They will have to invent new strategies for facing what scholars have been calling “democratic” ways of subverting democracy. In India, the list of expectations and failures is long. The bureaucracy has pathetically caved in, investigating agencies have practically transformed into a legal mafia, judiciary has become a sermonising priest at best and ideological partner of executive at worst. The media prides itself on being the trumpeting brigade of pseudo-nationalism besides working as PR agencies of the regime.

In this bleak backdrop, three pathways are worth considering. The first is the most attractive and one in which democrats invest a lot — protests, agitations and movements. From students to farmers to minorities, this regime has antagonised many sections of society. Poor governance and callous management of the economy pushes many more to the brink. Ideological varnish may stall or postpone organised protests, but not for long. While these protests have not substantially altered the course of democracy’s erosion, they do have the potential of rejuvenating people’s agency.

But the pathway most readers will be intrigued by is normal politics. Politics centred on a leader has blinded us for far too long. It is time India moves back to “politics as usual” — power politics, intra-party factionalism, competition over leadership, the cocktail of ideas, machinations and routine bargains. Not revolutions but ordinary politics can keep the spirit of democracy alive — that no party, no leader, no idea, no dream is final or invincible. America may not have substantively set aside Trumpism, but a non-dramatic Biden victory set aside the aura of Trump. That is the virtue of normal politics.

Such normal politics, of course, is only a small step in keeping democracy alive. An ideological engagement at the intellectual level is unavoidable. That engagement is not about the classical ideas of left and right, not about nation nor even about religion. All these battles are important, but the critical engagement urgently necessary will be about what we mean by democracy and what we do with it.

The 20th century was seen as the century of democracy’s expansion. If we do not want the present century to be that of democracy’s decay, then renewed public discourse around questions of its meaning, repertoire, purpose and limits will have to be enriched. The idea of democracy will have to be taken to the people once again with an emphasis on inclusion, institutions, procedures and deliberation, but chiefly as the question of power-sharing.

This is a global challenge. From Russia to Brazil, Turkey to Thailand, and Hungary to China, governments have turned into regimes. These regimes are busy controlling people’s destinies and are nearly successful in controlling our minds. The challenge is to rupture the regime-ness of entrenched networks of power and push the powerful for what they are — just power-holders, deservingly scrutinised for their use of power.

This will not necessarily happen through grand theory. Intellectual interventions of a daily nature and untiring responses to the routine distortions of democracy will be required. Democracy can remain alive at the intersection of politics and political criticism.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 4, 2022 under the title ‘The democracy challenge’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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