Ever since the Velvet Revolution and the Arab Spring, democracy has become a global epidemic. All regimes want to be regarded as democratic and each is clear that they are democratic in their own unique way. Democracy has, in fact, become a portmanteau word where one concept seems to fit a variety of regimes.
This very spread of democracy has created problems for the idea of democracy. Democracy exists in many forms and current battles have become struggles between varieties of the democratic imagination. In fact, this battle between democracy and democracy might be the resonant theme of Indian politics, with the drama centred around the electoral success of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Modi regime represents one variant of conventional democracy. It is a majoritarian government which has come to power through the electoral process. While consolidating its power, it has sought to redefine basic concepts. It emphasises the primacy of the nation-state and upholds patriotism as the ultimate good. It seeks to twin patriotism to security such that citizenship becomes official, and majoritarianism and national purpose are seen as having primacy over civil society. Dissent in civil society, people’s movements, when they challenge national purpose, are seen as seditious.
Order is prized over dissent and order with security concerns defines the contours of law. Such a majoritarian exercise has little place or feedback for marginals, minorities, dissent or eccentricity. Such a regime carries great legitimacy because it is seen as evoking the general will.
But such a concept of democracy is a hegemonic and an impoverished one. It moves towards uniformity and is hostile to difference as dissent. It sees itself as securitarian and technocratic and as a result projects a managerial self. Such a developmental model is often economistic about the costs of development and turns suffering into a cost-benefit analysis. It is aspirational and therefore wary of failures, and tends to be epiphanic about nuclear energy. As a result, the informal and the biomass society, the structures of craft, have little say in policy. What it creates is a globalised India which conveys the sense of a second-rate West.
What the regime lacks is imagination. Its idea of development, energy and politics is conventional, text bookish and therefore hostile to people’s movements, social experiments which it dubs as anarchic. While seeking to standardise culture, it seeks to destroy nature, clearing development projects with an unbecoming urgency. The regime has single windows for corporations but is opaque to the citizen. Democracy, as the Aam Aadmi Party and Arab Spring demonstrated, allows for voices outside legislative frames, experiments outside institutional structures. The BJP has little sense of this and sees spontaneity and even social movements as law and order problems. Secondly it narrows the definition of citizenship in two devastating ways.
First, by mainstreaming development, it turns citizenship into a middle class concept where nomads, tribals, marginals have few claims to citizenship. By making patriotism almost sectarian it distances both minorities and dissenting groups. It is as if difference itself is an act of sedition. Such a frame combines vigilantism as a form of policing with cultural surveillance as moral policing, narrowing the framework of intellectual options. Ban, censorship and political correctness narrow the framework of democratic options further.
Accompanying its obsession with security is its hostility to the idea of sustainability that guarantees equity across different livelihoods and across generations. By being hostile to sustainability, the BJP’s claim to desi, swadesi or of practising swaraj becomes narrow nationalism that cannot accommodate a futuristic cosmopolitanism. The future demands that we work out models of sustainably to anchor the democratic imagination. By turning the nation-state into an act of idolatory, the BJP narrows the possibility of democracy.
The irony is that the narrowing of democracy into an aspiring middle class turf is itself seen as a consolidation of democracy. A managerial, orderly, bounded variant clothed in governance jargon of cleanliness, punctuality is preferred to a contentious democracy where disorder allows for surprise and variation. Such a worldview emerges when the majority sees itself in the role of victim and where a nation-state is tired of its secondariness. What one witnesses then is an aspiring nation-state desperate to break out of its third worldness.
Mobility becomes a substitute for justice and democracy itself becomes a dismal science of governance. In seeking to redeem itself from an alien past, the majority loses its way towards democratic ideals like secularism, resulting in reductive politics where majority rule legitimises any decision. As a result, it offers 19th century solutions to 20th century problems.
It has no sense of the futuristic city, it is hostile to ecology, it considers education as the making of a majoritarian syllabus. It creates business heroes more suitable to the era of robber barons and thinks CSR is an ethical frame for development. In fact, it is paradoxical that India, whose population is predominantly under 35, sounds Victorian in its morality, nationalist in its politics and seeks a science and energy system that is ethically embarrassing.
Today Indian democracy is I think afraid to be democratic. By banalising democracy, the BJP and our elite are pushing the country to a future where education is a Stalinist act of rectification and health is commoditised. India has failed both as a knowledge society and a democratic one. As a result, it is blind to the increasing violence of our development model, where malnutrition and gender violence dominate. One must realise that present within majoritarian democracy is a concealed preference for authoritarian models.
The middle class will increasingly prefer the coercive and securitarian approaches as society enters a crisis period. Democracy in all its variants has to challenge the cosmetic democracy of the current era. In fact, India has to face the paradox that it is the dullness of its democracy that threatens freedom and the dreams of the future.