By Sanjeev Ahluwalia*
Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage – playing in Mumbai and Delhi – makes us laugh at ourselves by stripping bare the self-serving hypocrisy underlying socially acceptable roles. Bleeding-heart Indian social liberals would do well to see themselves in the mirror via this play.
Admittedly, we humans must get beyond our basically brutish nature. But the first step to doing this is not to be in denial about the brute within us. Narendra Modi baiters are particularly delusional about themselves.
For them Mr Modi is forever damned because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 and because he refuses to atone at the altar of “secularism” that Indira Gandhi embedded in the Constitution in 1976 along with the subsidiary altar of “socialism”.
We have, since 1990, correctly turned a Nelson’s eye to the latter as has the rest of the world. But liberals fear that both the right (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party) and the left (communists), are so committed to their own political “ideology” that they aim to substitute liberal democracy with state authoritarianism.
The left has made itself redundant in India, so the real threat to liberalism is from the Modi government. The examples used to illustrate the increasingly “heavy hand” of the state are the clamp down on NGOs – Teesta Setalvad and Greenpeace; the attempt by the executive to reclaim the power to appoint higher judiciary; and current administrative practices like the “gag order” by home minister Rajnath Singh on officials hobnobbing with the press.
Are, then, Prime Minister Modi’s intentions subversive?
First, let’s consider the alleged attempt to misuse official authority to muzzle NGO critics.
Misuse of authority can only be assessed in two ways – either via the judicial process or via loss of public support, as happened resoundingly in 1977. Indira Gandhi was damned by the judicial process before being damned by the electorate post-Emergency.
In Mr Modi’s case, no adverse judicial outcome taints him. His significant popular mandate is likely to be re-endorsed in the Bihar state elections later this year. The Opposition has a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the judiciary remains generously tolerant towards public interest litigants. Both checks are working well. With respect to the “gag order”, post the RTI legislation, access to public information is institutionalised. Yes, news hounds can no longer get “breaking news” easily, but that is no great loss.
Second, when was India ever a social, liberal democracy? Mahatma Gandhi was a social liberal, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the tactics he used show that the country was not. That is why he mobilised the majority via religious means – bhajans and kirtans.
By preferring Nehru as the de facto Congress leader to Jinnah (who was never much of a hard-core Muslim), the Mahatma bowed to his political assessment that the Hindu majority would not accept anyone except a co-religionist as their leader. This was good realpolitik and has been the broad political trend since Independence.
After Independence, none of the national parties – the Congress, the Janata Dal, leave alone the BJP – have ever had anyone other than a Hindu as their supreme political leader. The only recent exception is Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. But even her links into politics are exceptionally pucca, upper caste Hindu. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is meant to be areligious, has had only one non-Hindu – a Sikh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet – as its general secretary from 1992 to 2005.
Indians feel comfortable being led by those who are from their own social group. For national issues religion and caste are the bonding factors. For state level elections, caste is the major factor; at the village level it is sub-caste or clan. This is hardly a characteristic of a liberal democracy.
The liberal political elite do a great disservice by spinning the myth of a liberal India. A more honest assessment would be of India as a seething cauldron of competing social groups held in balance by quasi-colonial state power. Recognising oneself, as I said earlier, is the first step to reconciliation and reform.
In a democracy, numbers count. To protect itself, minorities either have to increase their numbers, as the Hispanics and blacks are doing in the US, or they have to stay below the radar while aligning broadly with the majority goals. The US, a land of immigrants, has no qualms about requiring everyone to be American – in language and in culture, such as it is. France is even less tolerant of cultural or linguistic deviance. In comparison, India adjusts to linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. But till the Hindu population is in a majority they shall dictate the music to be played, as they have done since 1947.
India has remained an “administered” democracy of the colonial style – the spirit is scarce but bells and whistles abound – albeit better administered than it was pre-Independence. Prime Minister Modi’s moves are merely a muscular rendition of what all directly elected Prime Ministers did prior to 1989. Thereafter, coalition governments diminished the stature of the Prime Minister, who, in terms of formal powers, is more powerful than the American President. Those who have been socialised only during the last two decades of “coalition dharma”, when listless governance was the norm, need not be alarmed at the vigorous use of the available constitutional powers.
Any real democracy merely reflects the norms and aspirations of the people. This is the central conundrum of the Arab Spring that ended up fanning radical Islam instead of modernising North Africa and West Asia.
Urban folks worry too much about the seeming frailty of Indian democracy. They also exaggerate the role played by the media, civil society and intelligentsia as the bulwarks against its demise. The real custodians of democracy are the enormous variety of vertically and horizontally arrayed social groups, each negotiating to safeguard its own special interests and societal norms. By their very presence they illustrate that there is a competitive market for political power in India.
Unsurprisingly, as in any market, bargaining power in a democracy is with the majority. But every market has to be regulated to be efficient and equitable. That is what Parliament and the judiciary are expected to do in our system. If democracy ever dies, it is these two institutions which will be responsible, not the executive or the people of India.
*The writer is an Advisor to Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
Courtesy: Asian Age, July 29, 2015