The sour note on which Hamid Ansari’s tenure as vice president has ended is attributable to the acrimoniousness that has seeped into our times, but it was a profoundly disturbing spectacle and perhaps avoidable on all sides. Almost all Indians understand the social animus that exists, and the sharp political divisions and polarisation of opinions emerging from it. But there is another polarity of which the dramatis personae must be deeply cognisant: the difference between politics and the state.
Democracy is a perennial opening out to the real. It must account for every category of experience in the real world, and is in a sense always on the vanguard, the bleeding edge. And free speech is what accomplishes it. The state, however, can only be understood as an entity belonging in some senses to the classical order—inherently conservative in manner, preserving its shape and order.
The only real function of the public and ceremonial aspects that attend constitutional moments is to foster a sense of solidity and continuity. This is not an empty function: The belief of the citizenry is generated anew with each act and gesture. The enactment of these modern rituals renews the state itself and the public’s consent for it. All the dramatis personae here know they are the public’s trustees on whom lies the onus of navigating the country through what is indeed a mini-epoch marked by a deep contestation of fundamentals—taking it across without injury.
Perhaps the outgoing vice president should have been more mindful of protocol and spoken later as a free citizen; or spoken in a more advisory tone—it is after all his government too—than as an aggrieved social entity. Perhaps the incoming one could have been a little less chafing in his polemical dismissal of what was said as “propaganda”—he, after all, is no longer a partisan. Perhaps Ansari’s critics—the ruling party, its representatives in government and supporters—could have done better than reduce a fine personage, with a fine career in diplomacy and a constitutional role, to the radius of his social origins.