By Ditsa Roy
“We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going to direct the other way.” – Charles Dickens
The recently concluded Assembly Elections have further consolidated our ideas of politics and democracy into a narrower, more restricted perception. Albeit, this perception has been challenging our core values for the past few years, but recently it is also causing us to lose faith in elections and more importantly, in democracy. The ramifications are a diminishing role of state to a mere “charitable” state and a diminished idea of citizenship from bearers of rights to recipients of government schemes or “labharthi”. Consequently, politics of “empowerment” has been transmogrified to an electoral politics of caste arithmetic, social engineering, communal rhetoric and occasional freebies.
The core of this politics consists of the following proposition: If we can get elections to legitimize our platform on behalf of a racial/ethnic/religious majority, we can use electoral power to attack, via legislation, the idea of minority rights and undermine standard democratic freedoms like freedom of expression, association and religious or cultural practice. Thus, a freely conducted vote can be used to cripple the other freedoms that modern democracies value. In other words, India, unlike some of her neighbors, does not need any military coup to get done away with democracy. Rather, it is internal politics that has been slowly eating away the citadel of democracy like termites. But, the question is: amidst a fragmented Opposition with a minimal organizational strength, should we lose hope in Indian democracy? Or, is it time to move beyond the mainstream definition of democracy as just a system of government by the whole population through elected representatives? Or, do we start having confidence in a counter-hegemonic idea of democracy, specifically constitutional democracy?
A constitutional democracy is not just characterized by the existence of civil and political liberties but also ensures citizens’ participation in decision-making, promising interactions and civil society engagement. First of all, it is important to have clarity on some core issues like the relation between a citizen and the state, the place of identity between a citizen and the state and most importantly the limitations of state authority. This clarity will only come by once there are multiple opportunities for participation by involving citizens beyond elections. It is imperative for citizens to take part in decision-making process and public space discussions wherein they can relate to each other and feel a sense of mutual recognition. We need to realize that decisions are democratic not when they have the support of the majority, but rather when opinions are formed through a deliberative process in which reasons are freely exchanged. Secondly, we need to explore other avenues that are more or less free from institutionalization for civic engagement. Some of these can be street art, music, graffiti, street plays, tea-shops, classrooms and among others. We are practically living in an age of mistrust, caught up in a vicious cycle where the state doesn’t trust us and we don’t trust other citizens. The pre-existing tensions in society and frictions in our interactions have made it necessary to explore avenues free from institutional enclaves. It is really important to regain trust amongst all before building confidence on public institutions. The quality of communication must be given fundamental importance here. Thirdly, George Orwell once said, “One defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.” It is time political parties stop trying to establish an alternative to the idea of India established by the ruling dispensation. This regime has been quite deft at presenting any alternative idea as something against national interest and security. It has been successful at brandishing every attempt to counter majoritarianism as minority appeasement. The success of its communal propaganda is that it is already over-determined who is a fanatic: the minority and the civic resister are already constructed as such.3
This is why there is a dire need for a clear demarcation of questions that are to be answered by politics and those by society. There has to be a realization that the role of politics is not to answer the question on the Idea of India but to only ensure that it is under constant debate and everyone irrespective of class, caste, gender and religion gets to participate in the debate. Some questions should be left for society to answer. Here comes the role of a social movement that would ensure that it is a democratic society that answers these questions. It would act as a set of formal and informal checks and balances, experimenting with new ideas. It would redefine “what counts as political and who defines what is political.” It would act as a catalyst for change that move the question from “who we are” to “what we want.” We need a national movement that establishes the fact: “Yes there are and there will be differences. But the problem is not that we are not same. The problem lies in our overlapping interests.” The movement will act as a common thread to tie those interests. It has to be a participatory space where solidarity can be built and society revitalized.
Now, it is important more than ever for each one to enhance one’s political consciousness, to reclaim public spaces, to have an open public discourse and a rejuvenation of what it really means to take part in politics. It can be as simple and complex as engaging in discussions with family, friends, neighbours, even that person with whom one shares a bus ride and the wider public. It has to be the politics of discussion, dissent and accountability that can untie the knots of electoral politics.
Antonio Gramsci defined similar historical times as an interregnum. As he noted, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This is why it is important not to lose hope in the times of democracy weakening because it could also be an opportunity of democracy strengthening. Only if one shows the vigor to flip the coin!
Ditsa Roy is an undergraduate of politics at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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