Dividing Lines: Fable for democracy

One of the eeriest ironic stories I have read recently is by the Portuguese novelist, Jose Saramango. The novel, titled Seeing is a story of an unnamed country which decides to hold an election. The election officers wait on the ordained day, with the representatives of parties for the voters to arrive. With a sense of ironic fairness, he calls them the party on the left (p.o.l), the party on the right (p.o.r) and the party on the centre (p.o.c). Each exudes the right gravitas which is a kind of political correctness. The rain pours and the officials wonder where the voters are.

A few anonymous ones who turn up are treated with affected attention. Exactly at and as the rain stops, the population flows in like a giant exodus to vote. Yet the crowd is not enough to redeem itself demographically, as most of the votes are blank. Suddenly, the taken for granted citizen, the anonymous voter acquires a different power. He cannot be taken for granted. In his silence and the blank votes is a political statement that he does not believe either in choice of candidates or the vitality of politics. Another election is held a few days later and the results are the same. There is no inane social science in Saramango’s words and one realises he has touched on something futuristic and immediately real — a people’s indifference to politics can empty out a world, making citizenship and governance, the rules of electoral combat rituals of vacuity.
The historical opposite of Saramango’s world is the Arab Spring. It was a conflagration; an epidemic of faith in politics, where the body challenges the body politic in desperate acts of assertion. The Arab Spring is now in a state of limbo. Yet, between Saramango and the Arab Spring, one is tempted to ask what can reduce a faith in politics, especially in elections. Can Saramango’s magical story make us reflect on what forces diminish a faith in politics and the sacrament we call the elections? When would Indian democracy cease being the exemplary force it is? One can read such symptoms, fault lines even in the drama of today.

Firstly, the political has shrunk in meaning and range. Instead of being inclusive, eventful, offering surprises, the idea of the political has become a pinched term and with it the party lives, a reduced entity.

In an odd way, politics has migrated from its original domains, the party, the academe and the trade unions. These groups stick to the official and therefore have little place for marginals, eccentric and the dissenters. They want protest to behave predictably. Politics then becomes pompous when we believe parties and parliaments are domains, spaces for politics. Questions of survival, subsistence, new inventions of the political are left to new groups, movements, crowds, networks who are now threatening to become the wave of the future.

The decline of politics is best caught in the decline of the language of politics. Political vocabulary seems impoverished. Equating poverty to suffering is like thinking IQ defines intelligence. We create a set of words which have become the casualty words of modern politics. The most addictive of these is secularism. Secularism is a heavily traumatised word. In seeking to avoid the violence of religion, it impoverishes its own domain. But as a disciplinary word, it goes further in its snobbery, anyone who believes, anyone who talks of religion is treated as a lesser creature. It equates religion with communalism without looking at its own pathologies. Its very negativity does not allow it to see the power of pluralistic and syncretic imaginations. As a lens, it can understand little of the modern world. It lacks metaphors; a literary power, it is unable to see itself as a monster because it is so busy demonising other worlds.

The sadness of secularism is that it has no real constituency. The Left or modernising intellectuals adopt it when their own politics is failing. It is a crutch, not an innovative act of faith. Secularism is eventually a form of tolerance, an annexe to liberalism. It lacks the vocabulary to be inventive and overdoes its minoritarianism. It carries the baggage of hypocrisy and political correctness. It is a concept that needs help, new metaphors, a new magic realism, a sense of surprise. All it offers is a boring civics which is not even a hygiene or an act of criticism.

If secularism as a word sounds empty, development as a word is overloaded. The modern sense of being says — “I develop, therefore I am” — because being and history does not seem possible outside development. The claim that was once true of nationalism as the last refuge of scoundrels applies more to development. It is a promissory note which is becoming inflationary, promising miracles but failing to look at its dark side.

Secularism and development, like nationalism and security have become the empty words of today’s politics. We use them as hatchets to eliminate an opponent which in many cases is a marginal group or a dissenting voice. I am emphasising the failure of current vocabulary of politics because each one has become a jingoistic word on TV. Each marches in a gaudy uniform in today’s politics. As a result, there is little or no conversation, no art of exploring differences which one sees in classical politics. This illiteracy triggers a deeper malaise in media.

TV, in fact, has become a diseased form of politics caught between melodrama and scientism. In fact, one hopes the genius of Saramango captures another magical tale, of a country, where people are tired of politics on TV. The first act of citizenship becomes the refusal of spectatorship of TV. As the future emerges, one sees an India switching off TV sets, walking into cafes, forums, public domains to recapture the smell of politics. Each man before he votes junks his TV set. A junkyard of TV sets becomes the beginning of a new sense of politics.

In fact, each citizen begins the act of voting by switching off his TV set. I am a dull social scientist but one waits for a magical realist from Rushdie and Borges to Saramango to recapture the grace of modern democracy. Democracy and language recovers as each TV set is switched off in an act of grace.


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