Reworking the definitions of democracy

The new civil society should challenge the current definitions and use the future to fashion a new imagination. The Satyagrahi has to be a perpetual inventor of new ideas.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

Every day in the newspapers, one reads about the upcoming elections in 2024. The date has a particular aura and evokes a certain set of reactions. A date or year is not merely an indicator. How does one read it? At one level, you encounter it linearly. At another level, it is read as a transformation. Essentially, a date is not just a number or an index of events. One has to go beyond the linear sequence to engage with the cluster of interlocking and anarchic events. The 2024 election is visualised as a transformational event. It is a rite of passage into the future, where a certain kind of past is no longer possible. The event is virtually a year away, yet it has already reified itself into a grid of consequences. The continued reign of the BJP is now seen as inevitable. The decay of the Congress is now read as complete. 2024 has woven itself into the collective imagination of India. There is a sense of inevitability and closure. A political juggernaut has announced itself as a fait accompli.

How does one interpret such an event? In these moments, my mind goes back to two teachers: philosopher Ramu Gandhi and political scientist Rajni Kothari. Ramu could philosophise any moment and psychoanalyse the date by showing how it crept into the unconscious and helped create tacit memories of our society. Reading dates, he would claim, was a way of reading the BJP.

The BJP’s offer of a new modernity consisted of fragments of history often distorted in time. History was an umbilical cord that the BJP attached itself to, creating and reinventing itself by offering new definitions of modernity. For BJP, to create history was to rewrite it.

Rajni would add that the BJP’s understanding of history was not just exaggerated and misleading, but the party was illiterate vis-à-vis its idea of the future. He pointed out that Russian dissenters used the future creatively during the communist regime to create alternative imaginations and possibilities. Rajni felt the BJP mutilated history but froze the future into a rigor mortis of fixed possibilities.

Both scholars, I feel, would have gone further. 2024 is an electoral legitimation of a new modernity; it is not just the arrival of the BJP and the fading away of the Congress. The BJP offers a new modernity, a mix of patriarchy and technocracy. Rajni would add that Modi has to be read and re-read. Modi cannot be seen as an individual. Modi has to be read as an example of recapturing power by resetting democracy. We align democracy towards tyranny by reducing it to a numbers game. Modi and Shah thus become chartered accountants monitoring a new authoritarianism.

Rajni would add that it is not history that makes the BJP dangerous today but how they construct the future. Rajni would claim that we should recapture the future as a discourse from the BJP. The BJP has impoverished the future. It mimics the modernity of Trump and Putin and thinks it has entered a new club of nations. Rajni would suggest that civil society must create a kaleidoscope of a million Indias to recapture the future. The more imaginaries that India has, the more democratic it will be. Rajni would insist that civil society in India must follow Eastern European dissenters in creating new heuristics for the future. Ramu would hint that it is the future that one has to recapture from the BJP, not the past.

The BJP has been obsessively amateurish in creating the past but is almost narcissistic about the future. In re-reading the future, one has to create the semiotics of Modi as a myth. Modi no longer represents an ideology but is a myth created by the middle class and an elite tired of democracy.

Indian majoritarianism is in awe of authoritarianism. It is a special case of China envy. The Indian elite senses that China’s efficiency comes from a monolithic party. The Emergency is evoked to emphasise the comforts of authoritarianism.

Today, one does not need authoritarianism to legitimise it. Management as a model of control would suffice. Modi shows that populism was a prelude to majoritarianism. The India of the future has learnt to combine violence, management and development to create a flatland of citizenship, without any diversity. Be it urban displacement or refugee camps, authoritarianism is presented as a policy imperative. Modi creates indigenous authoritarianism by weaving security, sustainability and surveillance to project his sense of modernity. Here, ethics and management get subsumed under patriotism, while dissent is considered anti-national.

By seeing dissent as fragmented and alien, Modi seeks to eliminate it. It is this that civil society has to challenge. The prime minister’s favourite word is normalisation. He normalises violence and the rise of refugee camps. 2024 is a vote for such modernity as normal.

Modi realises that the word “electoral”, dislocated from democracy, is a critical vector. As a cynic remarked, the easiest way to dictatorship is to vote for it. Rajni would add that 2024 is a time when democracy has to reinvent itself, and only civil society can do it. The tragedy is that the current opposition is mechanical in letting the BJP define the terms of the discourse. We need new concepts and imaginaries, and one must realise that many current parties might be irrelevant in the future.

In reworking the narrative, one has to think differently. Ramu would point out that it is not ideology or power that the BJP invokes but a special kind of pedagogy. Every BJP leader, from Rajnath Singh to Yogi Adityanath, behaves like an exemplar, dishing out standard summaries of governance. Individuals like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee or even Rahul Gandhi sound like dated fragments from a previous era.

The new civil society has to challenge the current definitions and use the future to fashion a new imagination. The Satyagrahi has to be a perpetual inventor of new ideas so that he or she can rework the perspectives of the marginalised, the minority and the middle-class into a new imagination. One has to go beyond the conventional World Bank models of consumption and participation. Terror has to be challenged through martyrdom. One senses that in reinventing democracy through the above steps, we reinvent the idea of a new India.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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