All is not lost. There is hope yet. Indian democracy has proved its sturdiness. The recent Assembly elections in Central India have demonstrated that distribution of rupee-bundles and liquor bottles alone will not decide issues in Indian politics. Good sense too counts south of the Himalayas. Sound reason asserts itself after a spell of emotion-led politics. Values count.
Centuries ago, Buddha interpreting the Indian people’s sense of balance, proposed the “Middle Path.” This made co-living possible among people of diverse convictions, with little room for fanaticisms. Ashoka took the message to the political field. In our recent history, neither the Right nor the Left Parties were allowed to take things too far. If radicals grabbed prominence for a while through their eccentric jabbering, they were shown their place in a brief moment.
The People Have Spoken: Public Rejection of a Hate-based Ideology
The Hindi-belt rejection of the BJP where their party was presumed to have been the strongest is the “rejection of their ideology,” not of Modiji’s call for Sab ka Vikas, Swachh Bharat, Beti Bachao, or Make India Great. It is not a lack of appreciation of the hard work he put in, together with his colleague Amit Shah; but it is an unmistakable repudiation of the “politics of hatred,” deviance, disruption, polarization, provocation, exclusion, anger, fanaticism, and communal violence. Alwar District in Rajasthan, for example, where three cow-related killings had taken place recently, rejected the BJP outright. If the VHP wants to impose the belief that cows are more precious than human beings, citizens say ‘NO.’
The Indian society is clearly affirming, “Politics is not about building temples, constructing statues, renaming cities, appropriating tribal land, and leaving the Dalits and minorities helpless and breathless. It is about working for the inclusive development of the entire society, giving special attention to the neediest.” Those who are able to read the message correctly will build their future. Take note: there was little complaint about Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s development schemes in MP, but the ideology that he patronized earned him his rejection.
The VHP organized Dharma Sabha in Ayodhya had said they would listen only to the ‘people,’ neither to the courts nor to secular arguments. Now the ‘people’ have spoken through these elections, and they have given a clear secular message: “Let the sadhus build their temples and the Government serve the people. Every legitimate ambition can be fulfilled within the framework of the Constitution.” In fact, all Indians rejoice when they see their fellow citizens live in religious earnestness and follow their own dharmic convictions. There is no jealousy between religions, only between people who make a political use of religion.
The BJP Misinterpreted their Mandate
It is true, Amit Shah had hoped to rule for 50 years and Modi to make India a Superpower with the Gujarat model of economic development. They worked hard. However, they were unable to interpret what the Indian public wanted in 2014: most people merely wanted to have a break from the inefficiency of the Congress whom they also accuse of ongoing corruption.
One is reminded of what a Venezuelan woman said when Hugo Chavez was elected. Our system is infected, she said, “Chavez is the only antibiotic we have” ( See, Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing, New York, 20018, Pg 4). Political observers say, Chavez tapped into the “anger of the Venezuelans” (Ibid 3). That is what our saffron brigade did too in order to come to power, and they succeeded. However, they misinterpreted their popularity. They were invited to prove their worth, but all they proved were their prejudices!
Leaders Who Begin as Demagogues and End up as Tyrants
A long time ago, Alexander Hamilton had warned people against leaders who commence as “demagogues” and end up as “tyrants” (Ibid 39). Was our saffron party leadership moving in that direction? Early American immigrants, who had fled the abuse of power in Europe, dreaded the loss of freedom in their new-found land. Dangers of course did arise from time to time. McGovern-Fraser Commission Report, for example, cautioned against “the anti-politics of the street” (Ibid 50). It alerted the citizens against groups that went round “stirring up mass hatreds or making absurd promises” (Ibid 51). Are we reminded of our own cow vigilantes?
Sri Pranab Mukherjee, speaking at the CBCI Centre at a recent pre-Christmas celebration, was very sure, “...we are going through troubled times. Divisive tendencies, intolerance and prejudiced ‘fear of the other’ seem to be defining us in place of the composite and yet diverse nation that we emerged, as over 5000 years of co-existence, acceptance, adaptation and assimilation. However, it is my considered belief that this, like the past is a temporary phase.” The present elections have proved him true. Fanaticisms fizzle out in India.
How Democracies Die: Distribute Hatred, Sponsor Terrorism
What the study of Levitsky and Ziblatt reveals in the above-quoted book ‘How Democracies Die’ is exactly what has been happening in India during the last four and half years. It says, “Demagogues attack their critics in harsh and provocative terms—as enemies, as subversives, and even as terrorists” (Ibid 75). This was what the BJP spokespersons have been doing ever since their party took over power. History has to be re-written, they feel, and hatred has to be distributed according to their interpretation of India’s past. Adityanath Yogi believes the Muslims should have a greater share of it.
Yogiji attributed the present defeat of the BJP to “Congress deceit,” not to their own policy failures, not to their temple-mania challenging the Constitution; not to their cow-fanaticism. The international community considers cow-vigilantism plain ‘state sponsored terrorism.’ Subramaniam Swamy , while admitting the non-performance of Modiji’s Sab ka Vikas project, suggested that Hindutva programmes were at least a partial compensation. Justice S. R. Sena, a Meghalaya High Court judge, swore that India should have been declared a Hindu country at partition!
When we hear such odd statements we are reminded of Montaigne’s words, “No one is exempt from saying silly things. The misfortune is to say them with earnest effort.” These are fanaticisms that are eager to reveal the ugly face of an ideology in an unembarrassed manner.
Crippling the Guardians of Democracy
According to Levitsky and Ziblatt upstart dictators quickly seek to tame the “referees” of democracy as soon as they take power in hand: people who are its guardians like the judges, replacing them with their own men. In order to terrorise their opponents, they systematically plan tax-raids against rival politicians, independent businesses, critical media outlets, and investigating NGOs. The police are given instructions to keep harassing all opponents (Ibid 78). Dissenting officials are replaced, pro-government thugs are promoted (Ibid 79). Libel or defamation suits are introduced against critics (Ibid 83). Media men are hunted down and are forced to sell property to loyal business men. The timid go for self-censorship, or shift from well-informed political criticisms to health tips, business notes, tourist information, curiosities, puzzles, tame tales, and non-issues (Ibid 84).
These are all things that have been taking place in India during the last few years. It looks as though Modi, Trump, Duterte, Putin and Erdogan are following the same ‘One-Man-Rule Manual.’ They learn from each other. For example, Trump attacked the press and the jury in fanatic fervour as soon as he took over. He has been unsparing of the law enforcement agencies, intelligence, ethics teams, courts (Ibid 177). Newspapers were bought off or bullied. Critics met with legal troubles (Ibid 6). The present BJP regime has been busy with all these exercises; it withdrew license from hundreds of well-meaning NGOs that served the nation. It has warned, threatened, and bullied people with other opinions.
Someone has asked: does Hindutva need a constant enemy (Muslims, minorities, Pakistan, China) lest it splits along lines of caste (Brahmins, Banias, OBCs, dalits), ethnicity (e.g. Marathas, Gujaratis, Telugus), region (Bengal, Bihar)?
Responsibility of Individual Citizens, Party, Media, Intellectuals, Institutions
We need not wait for such negative experiences to accumulate before we respond to the situation. “Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on all of us” (Ibid 230). Every citizen has a duty to study the Constitution, remain alert and informed about events, offering intelligent criticism when needed and effective support when policies are for the common good. If they abdicate their “political responsibility, authoritarianism takes over” (Ibid 19).
However, their conduct should be non-violent and dignified when they take up arms to defend personal rights and constitutional institutions. The style of their dissent should not dishonour the very democratic tenets that they wish to uphold, nor should they have recourse to the “politics of disruption,” e.g. in the assemblies, election processes. Disgraceful words and deeds downgrade a movement, they are counterproductive. For example, while the non-violent protests of the African-Americans (Martin Luther King and others) in the US strengthened the Civil Rights agenda, violent protests only caused the loss of public sympathy (Ibid 218). Obstructionism is not democracy (Ibid 162).
If individuals have responsibility, parties have even a greater responsibility. They should not admit extremists into their party with the hope of winning votes or for the fear of losing the elections (Ibid 7). They should restrain members who speak and act erratically, correct leaders who verge on demagoguery, fanaticism, or maverick behaviour. In the face of authoritarianism, ideologically differing parties should come together and collaborate in order to keep radicals out, as they did recently in Austria; or in France in support of Emmanuel Micron to defeat Marine Le Pen (Ibid 68). In India, opposition parties are seeking to come together against BJP authoritarianism, but it is not yet clear whether they can set aside clashes of interests over ‘power and pelf,’ portfolios and prominences. It is interesting to note that among the newly elected MLAs in Rajasthan, 158 are crorepatis. Will money-bags count more for them than people’s needs?
The media has the weighty responsibility of ‘educating the public.’ Objective and unbiased reports and intelligent political analysis will help to preserve democratic values in a society. University men and intellectuals in a special way play a unique role in this respect: they can act as ‘philosopher-friends’ helping the less informed people to ‘think’ before they make their choices. They should warn fellow-citizens about the danger of bypassing the Constitution, ignoring the law, being led by mere emotions, forgetting codes of dignified behaviour.
In the same way, the structures of political parties, institutions of the Government, and decision-makers in diverse organizations in civil society... all play an irreplaceable role in seeking to ensure fair play, balance, proportion, and mutual concern, e.g. when giving tickets to candidates for election, choosing leaders at various levels, listening to the grievances of various sections and levels of society. Abdication of institutional responsibilities, for example, can have disastrous consequences (Ibid 153).
Unwritten Rules about Civility and Respect, Democratic Values
We must give special credit to Levitsky and Ziblatt for giving attention to another detail that helps to build up a democratic ethos. “All successful democracies rely on informal rules” that find spontaneous recognition in society (Ibid 100). These have reference to “shared codes of conduct” that are readily accepted and instinctively enforced by its members (Ibid 101). Dignity in conduct and in relationships and mutual respect constitute core democratic values. Politicians who cultivate such values quickly accept political rivals as decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens—that they love their country and respect the Constitution (Ibid 102). It is not the elimination of the opponent that they aim at (like the BJP longs for a Congress-mukt India), but collaboration for the collective wellbeing of society.
The authors warn, “When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain” (Ibid 104). They criticize Trump’s lack of ‘political civility,’ making personal attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during elections, and even after the elections which is totally contrary to accepted tradition (Ibid 197). However, the study insists, violation of the rules of civility, disrespect for the press, and evasion of truth started long before Trump. Under him, people have become desensitized to unrefined excesses further, and have grown accustomed to the ‘scandalous.’ This happens because his supporters stand with him for partisan reasons and to promote their own personal ambitions (Ibid 201). This is exactly what happens in India too.
All Parties Stand on Test Before the Elections: on Democratic Values, Refined Vocabulary, Solidity of Argument
Rough language began in India too long before the BJP. Regional or sectarian ‘heroes’ could get away with howling out anything, as long as they were effective in catering to the interests of their community. Bal Thackeray proudly claimed, “My words are like bullets,” when he was attacking non-Maharashtrians. Nor did he spare national figures like Gandhiji, Phule, Tilak, or Ambedkar. In the same way, whenever A.K.Singhal, Sudarsan or Togadia opened their mouths, one had to be ready for the most shocking statements. Habituated to addressing admiring crowds, they would lose their sense of responsibility, even human sensitivity. Jayalalithaa would not go that far, but turned herself into an idol, despising democratic styles of leadership and relationships. Threat to democracy then began long before the Modi era.
Speaking of language, its level has sunk further of late, especially during elections. There has been, what Arnold Toynbee would call, a ‘vulgarization’ of public tastes and sensitivities. Words used by campaigners of all parties, not just the BJP, have become far below dignity, referring to each other as ‘chor and kutta,’ or calling down abominations on their caste or sub-caste. The quality of debates too has fallen in the assemblies and in political discussions. What are presented are not facts, figures and arguments to convince, but emotional issues, hate words, and ugly names to humiliate. ‘Unfounded allegations’ of foul play and deceit shake the confidence of citizens on democratic institutions and processes. One must be held accountable for every word one says and every argument one puts forth in public.
Building on a Common Moral Ground
Democracy does not consist in outwitting others’ interests for my own, it consists in building on a ‘common moral ground’ our shared future. Pranab Mukherjee at the CBCI Centre referred to this common ground on which our destinies should be constructed: “Truth, Compassion and Righteousness. While thanking the Christian institutions for educating “crores of Indians” and catering to “millions” of patients, he pointed out how close the concepts related to Rama Rajya, Dharma and the Kingdom of God were. He expressed his gratitude to priests and religious for their “discipline and dedication.”
Patriotism does not consist in trivialities like standing attention as Vandemataram is being sung, but serving the nation with devotion...and keeping all fanaticisms at a distance.(Published on 24th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 52)