Dividing Lines: Whither democracy?

Electoral democracy has now become a choice of authoritarianisms.

There is a celebratory air about the recent elections in West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu that is intriguing. The celebration is at two levels. First, there is a sense of the BJP being a national party, of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi back on course. Second, there is also an adulation about the durability of Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa. As elections go, the descriptions appear competent. But at these moments one always remember the words of the late Rajni Kothari, who once said psephologists can tell you a lot about elections but little about democracy.

Election studies, he observed, are acute on logistics, cost, the logic of numbers. They are great on the big machine called politics but poor on democracy. Democracy implies norms and values and these do not quite fit into the technicalities of elections. It is like asking a plumber to deal with a Picasso. I remember what Kothari said and felt reassured because I realise that I am not quite satisfied with the election results at a democratic level. One obtains a different reading from this perspective.
Indian “democracy” now functions at two layers of authoritarianism. At the level of the Centre, we are being ruled by majoritarianism, which has little place for margins, minorities or dissenters. The rule of regimes at the regional level is no less authoritarian. Our regional satraps are populist, authoritarian demagogues who manipulate the masses through threats and doles before the election. Jayalalithaa turned voting during the Tamil Nadu election into a virtual act of conspicuous consumption.

What we are facing is a kind of regional Stalinism with Jayalalithaa, Mamata, Nitish and Naveen Patnaik in charge. Electoral democracy has now become a choice of authoritarianisms. Worse, there is no real opposition in the making of India, with each regional party content in its turf. A citizen almost feels that the idea of opposition as the national art is lost. Partly, the Congress is to be blamed. It is the family that is to be blamed most as it emasculates the Congress of history by desperately retaining an autistic leadership at the top.

Politics in India will probably begin when the Congress family is dumped into history. The sheer suspended animation of the Congress is painful to watch. Every party knows that what India needs is not a “Congress-mukt” Bharat but a family-mukt Congress. As a result, a great party is treated as a retarded force and even morsels of votes it receives is seen as a great achievement. A wider logic of history kept the Congress afloat with the CPI(M) as steersman. The CPI(M) still follows its old electoral habits aligning with “democratic forces” — meaning the Congress. Such an alignment is sheer sentimentality, which creates a misreading of the politics of the future. Such alignments are more around the table manners of politics than around real issues.

The Left has to realise that a Congress liberated from the Gandhis could be a dynamic entity. Even within the CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury is playing the new liberal in an attempt to create an opposition. He seems to spend more time looking over his shoulder at Stalinist critics lurking inside the party than in battling a real opposition. Neither he nor anyone else realises that Mamata has proletrianised (changed to or adopted the language, manners, etc. of the worker class) her voting base to capture West Bengal.

West Bengal today is a combination of populism and demagoguery that the CPI(M) cannot match. The CPI(M) has little sense or responsibility of the damage it did to Bengal by criminalising it. But Ms Banerjee went a step further by decentralising West Bengal and making the Trinamul a local nukkad of thugs and local clubs. She has woven it into a web of violence that even the CPI(M) finds appalling, leaving party loyalty to local thugs, who makes the practice of making unfair allegations sound like a civilised discourse. Yet the CPI(M) is not able to dent the imagination because its critique or concern for democracy is abstract and intellectualised; it is more like an article in a magazine than an embedded sense of political critique.

In fact, among the AIADMK, Congress, JD(U) and CPI(M), the idea of an opposition is turning farcical. Democracy in India is stumbling because the two waves of authoritarianism — national and regional — have turned the idea of an opposition into a farcical entity. They create imaginaries, potential third alternatives, third forces, secular unities — all seeking to emphasise that nothing substantial is happening, Nitish, Jaya, Mamata talk of opposition to stake proprietorial turfs rather than map out futuristic strategies of politics. It is almost as if there has been a lazy secession of regions, each pretending to belong to an imaginary nation.

With regional autarchies in place, the BJP cannot dent these domains. Its politics of anxiety can only find a place in the frontier, where it invades the Northeast. Its victory is remarkable but what would have been frightening if it had won both Bengal and Assam. Such a victory would have created a communalist consolidation of frightening consequences. Recently, during the release of P.C. Chidambaram’s book of essays at the Nehru Museum, Mr Chidambaram and Omar Abdullah claimed that they were a hair’s breath from revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA).

The ifs and buts of a post-mortem Congress apart, the removal of AFPSA would have created a new sense of the Northeast. Sadly, the Congress lacked that final courage, and was stuck between the politics of security and the politics of anxiety. The BJP will emasculate the Indian politics of hospitality. In fact, at every step, democracy as plurality is declining and the BJP is congratulating itself for it.

This is the tragedy of contemporary India that few see Amit Shah or the RSS as a corrosive force imposing uniformity while destroying the creative plurality of India. Psephologists as voting accountants cannot capture this moral decline. What we desperately need are democratic theorists who can see the BJP for what it is and sound the warning bells of democracy.

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