Updated on: Tuesday, September 28, 2021, 12:05 AM IST

Democracy is in a state of global churn, writes Ashutosh

Today, democracy is not about ‘service’ but has been reduced to the accumulation of maximum power and rendering others powerless. It is no longer defined by ‘sacrifice’ but by snatching the right of the minorities to live with dignity; their voices are muted, and they have been identified as enemies of the state. The minority also includes those who disagree with the majoritarian rule

Democracy is on trial all over the world. There are serious pressures on the functioning of democracy and many serious questions are being raised. Intellectuals and academicians are questioning the very premise of democracy. It is being debated if democracy has failed and civilisation has reached the point of proclaiming the end of democracy.

The world is strongly debating if it is time for the evolution of a new form of human organisation and a new state apparatus to be created. This is being debated in the context of the rise of the right-wing authoritarian regimes and increasing intolerance across the globe. Even evolved democracies like the US have produced leaders like Donald Trump and his supporters and ardent followers, who, like an invading army, attacked the temple of democracy in the USA – Capitol Hill.

The world is grappling with the fact that with the passage of time when it is expected that democratic ethos and institutions would be strengthened and new openings would be available for a better human race, there is instead the rebirth and consolidation of pre-modern identities which are blatantly anti-democratic at their core and threaten the basic edifice of democracy. Western democracies are puzzled by the fact that these entities are products of democracy and that democracy is used to capture power and thereafter, attempts are made to undermine that very democracy and establish authoritarian regimes and propagate regressive ideas that push the society into the past, instead of journeying into the future.

Indian model

This is being debated stridently in India as well. Not long ago, the world was of the opinion that India could be a great model for western statecraft and could offer solutions on how to deal with diversity and create a harmonious society despite many inherent contradictions and conflicts. But that image has given way and the world is stunned to see that in the last few years, democratic space has rapidly been shrinking and free speech is being muzzled. India has been consistently slipping on democratic parameters. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, American President Joe Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris obliquely lectured India on the importance of respecting democracy and honouring diversity.

There is no denying the fact that in India, the land of Gandhi, democracy was not a game of just numbers. The framers of our Constitution created an apparatus which, in theory, is based on the majority and minority equation but it has always been emphasised that minority rights must be protected and that the minority should not feel alienated, lonely and helpless in the power structure. Democracy in India was not defined by brute majority numbers but by the sense of security the minority felt. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru writes in his autobiography: “Gandhi’s conception of democracy is definitely a metaphysical one. It has nothing to do with numbers or majority or representation in the ordinary sense. It is based on service and sacrifice. It uses moral pressure.”

Today, democracy is not about ‘service’; it has been reduced to the accumulation of maximum power and rendering others powerless. Democracy is no longer defined by ‘sacrifice’ but by snatching the right of the minorities to live a dignified life; their voices are muted, and they have been identified as enemies of the state. The minority here is not to be understood only in terms of religious identity but also with those who disagree with the majoritarian rule.

Top-down approach

Democracy is a celebration of disagreements but if disagreement becomes a sin, then it is important to ask if that society is moving towards an authoritarian state. Democracy is the exaltation of individual freedom but in the Indian context, it is not brute individuation, it is harmonisation of individuality with the larger collective consciousness. This harmonisation, within the society and in the state structure, is adjustment with the opposites, it is accommodation with the adversary; it is not making enemies but converting enemies into friends. It is not driven by dictates from the top, but arriving at a consensus on the most contentious issues and processes. But in India today, democracy is a top-down approach, it is leader-driven, discourages disagreements and refuses to entertain divergent views.

There was a time when Gandhi and Nehru could be defied and yet not feel threatened by it. In 1939, Gandhi wanted Pattabhi Sitaramayya to be the Congress president but Subhas Chandra Bose won, despite Gandhi’s opposition. In 1950, Nehru opposed the candidature of Purushottam Das Tandon as the Congress president, but could not stop him from winning the elections. In later years, Chandra Shekhar became a member of the Congress Working Committee and Indira Gandhi’s dislike did not matter. Could the same thing be said today? Could the same thing be repeated?

India has changed and so has its democracy. It is no longer a spiritual exercise. Today, when a chief minister is changed along with his entire cabinet and replaced by a political non-entity, it is hailed as a political masterstroke and the process is praised profusely. The non-existence of any murmur within the party is eulogised as great discipline. History bears witness that discipline has brought nothing but havoc to various societies.

All about dissent

Stalin’s USSR was a great example of discipline and so were Hitler’s Germany and Mao’s China and in India, the Emergency was hailed as ‘Anushasan Parva’ (festival of discipline). Democracy is not about discipline. Rather it is about faction and factionalism; it is about conflicts and clash of interests; it is about lobbying and influencing decisions by divergent groups. It is about airing one’s views and giving vent to anger without fearing the consequences. It is in this sense that the lack of murmur in Gujarat is scary.

On the other hand, when the chief minister in Punjab is changed after frenetic lobbying and angry exchange of views, the media dubs it as weakness and anarchy. The chief minister resisted the change and even after resigning, did not keep his mouth shut. During the process, many names figured in the public domain, hectic lobbying took place, tempers ran high but finally a consensus was reached and a CM was chosen. Yes, this was messy. One can well ask why a smoother process was not achieved. True, but democracy by nature is messy and chaotic.

Gandhi, once he was back from South Africa, did not become the leader of the Congress overnight. He was not accepted easily despite his proven track record of agitation and leadership in a foreign land. In the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1920, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was hooted and almost beaten and stalwarts like Chittaranjan Das, who were initially opposed to Gandhi’s leadership were abused openly.

Gandhi believed as long as he was the leader, he should be the dictator, but on many occasions, senior Congress leaders openly disagreed with his style of functioning. He was severely criticised when he withdrew the agitation after the Chauri Chaura incident. To begin with, senior leaders of the Congress did not agree with his Dandi March and Quit India Movement, but disagreements did not lead to the liquidation of such leaders. They could air their views without any fear. That was democracy.

But today democracy has turned adversaries into enemies. It has become schizophrenic. Instead of consensus-building it is dividing societies. Instead of conflict resolution, it is harping on discipline, which is fake and fearful in its very conception. That is why democracy today is on trial.

The writer is an author and Editor,

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Published on: Tuesday, September 28, 2021, 02:30 AM IST