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On Saving Our Freedom

On Saving Our Freedom

The Era of Uncertainty

“We live in an era of radical uncertainty” says Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard University in his recent book ‘The People Vs. Democracy,’ (pg. 25, Harvard University Press, 2018). No one could foresee even a few years ago the election of unpredictable persons like Trump, Duterte or Modi to lead a modern democratic nation. While Trump vows to wipe out North Korea,   Duterte to eliminate all drug addicts and Muslim-dissenters in the Philippines, Modi plans a special force like ‘Greyhounds’ to tackle the Naxalite problem. Five hundred protesters have been arrested in Chhattisgarh alone; strong action is planned for Manipur; emotional alienation of Kashmir is complete. The UN has sent a warning note. And yet, what surprises Rudhragshu Mukherjee is the acceptability of the popularized BJP Creed, ‘Modi never makes a mistake.’  

Yascha Mounk argues that the world political mood is fast changing. There is increasing disillusionment with chaotic, non-performing, exploitative democracies that have fallen into the hands of leaders who merely attend to party/corporate interests. Some of them excel in noble rhetoric but are least worried about the concerns of the lower classes in their own countries. On the other hand, authoritarian populists, while using rough words, offer hopes to groups with specific anxieties. Russia and Turkey have changed “fledgling democracies into electoral dictatorships” (Ibid 2). Hopes raised can end on the rocks.

Why People are Disappointed with Democracies

Even in long established democracies, democratic traditions like intelligent debate, popular participation, full scope for human talent, and warm relationships among different communities are floundering. Most of all, corruption has risen to the highest levels. The Government-Business nexus frightens the weaker citizens.

Elected leaders have only one anxiety: the huge amount of money they have spent during the elections has to be recovered (Ibid 81). Therefore, they spend half their time fund-raising in view of the next-elections. They keep close to the donors, lobbyists and special interest groups; and the rest of the time with their own party-men and peers, and with cultural and financial elite, so that they have no time for the people whom they represent. It is such self-interested elitist groups that shape the value-systems, ideas, and assumptions of the present-day politicians (Ibid 87).

Thus, they remain an uprooted lot, representing various interest groups and party cliques than their constituents. Which means, effectively, that democracies have long ceased to be democracies. All that the ruling bunch tries to do is to ensure an “artificial boom in election years” to win votes (Ibid 60).   Granted that such evils are present in today’s democratic system, what most people forget is that the problems of democracies can best be solved within the framework of democracy itself. For this, the leaders must keep close to the people, not merely to a chosen section of them. But that is not what is happening.

Less than one-third of millennial Americans believe that democracy is important. They take the blessings of democracy for granted. One in six believes that ‘army rule’ is good (Ibid 5).   They had no experience of living under such a rule. So it happens that there is a “creeping erosion of democracy,” laments Mounk (Ibid 60); “a democratic recession” is underway, says Larry Diamond (Ibid 104).   It may come as a shock to many that 32% of Americans of all ages favour a strongman leader today. They favour military rule as in Algeria (17%) or Yemen (20%) (Ibid 109). The same opinion is held in Germany (33%), France (48%), UK (50%). In India such a view is fast gaining ground (Ibid 110-11).

Majoritarian Strongmen Exploit Minorities and Weaker Groups

The Indian industrial elite are searching for places where safe investment is possible and where resources can be exploited and cheap labour obtained. They are looking for a ‘Strong Hand’ to discipline the disorderly.   The larger crowd, too,   just want an ‘honest’ ruler who will attend to their immediate interests and will abolish all institutional roadblocks; if needed, even liberal democracy’s ‘checks and balances.’ They do not want the ‘will of the majority’ to be mediated. Again they feel any ‘compromise with minority’ is a form of corruption. They want to appear democratic, but do not mind being ‘illiberal’ (Ibid 8), being hard on minorities, dissenters, free press, etc.

But there are consequences. As soon as Victor Orban felt secure in his position as leader in Hungary, he took in hand the TV, the election commission, the court. He changed the electoral system, made corporations to channel money to his business allies, and restricted the initiatives of critical NGOs. He believes that the democracy should be hierarchical not liberal (Ibid 10).

Strongmen Claim to Represent the “Will of the People,” Abuse power

Liberalism stands for freedom of speech, separation of powers, and protection of individual rights (Ibid 26). But these things are non-concerns for the one who pretends to represent the ‘will of the people.’ During the French Revolution Maximilien de Robespierre claimed to be the incarnation of the ‘will of the people,’ so did Napoleon, so did Hitler, so did Mussolini, Mao, and Pol Pot. Our political order is moving in that direction under the guidance of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who promise to hold the nation in grip during the coming half a century.

Having grown tired of the ‘high flown’ vocabulary of democratic demagogues who had long lost their ‘credibility,’ people do not seem to be excessively upset about the rough language that Duterte or Trump uses. The Europeans, Russians and Chinese are “foes” for Trump, not competitors. Others seem to be picking up from the American leader, calling adversaries ‘enemies.’ Michael Ignatieff of Canada insists on making a distinction. He says, adversaries are to be defeated, enemies are to be destroyed. It is unfair to call a competitor an enemy (Ibid 113). But Trump is unconcerned. He calls every criticism “a pile of garbage.” He blames the dissenting media for “fake news,” he calls them dishonest.

In India, minorities, dissenting voices, protesting lower classes are called ‘unpatriotic,’ disloyal. They are continuously being told to prove their patriotism, stand as Vande Mataram is being sung, join Yoga classes, shout ‘Bharata Mata ki Jai’ when they are told, and use the rashtra bhasha. If they fail to do so, they are asked to ‘go to Pakistan.’  

In some countries, leaders who have assumed all power into their hands have set up alternative news channels and broadcasting centres for propaganda to get their ideas accepted   (Ibid 44). In India, it is often done by second level leaders, e.g. the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Chouhan keeps repeating that there is none better than Modiji! But the credibility of such eulogies seems to be falling. The media that have established a firm nexus with the Government and corporations have already lost their credibility. People look for alternative sources for reliable information.

Those who are hit hardest are the dissenters. Gauri Lankesh was eliminated, so were several other critics who questioned the social order and studied the historical causes of injustice. Dissenting intellectuals are called ‘urban Naxals,’ human rights activists ‘half Maoists.’ All who hold another worldview than theirs have been given pejorative titles: Dalits are called anti-socials, tribals anti-nationals, minorities un-Indian, secular citizens anti-Hindu, and open-minded Hindus minority-appeasers.

Violent Suppression, Marginalization of Scholarship, Inferiority Complex

Independent thought is suppressed most of all. Among those who have been arrested recently are doctors, engineers, teachers, writers, poets, priests, and thinkers. International scholars are afraid to publish their books in India for fear of the Right-wingers. They are afraid to give thought-provoking lectures at our conferences; their life would be threatened. Visas are regularly refused to intellectuals, giving irrefutable evidence to our “Inferiority Complex.” No wonder we have to be satisfied with second-rate scholarship.

Mamata Banerjee says, BJP dictates to citizens what they should read, eat, and wear.   Arundhati Roy describes more at length the dangerous atmosphere the ruling party is creating in the country as it is becoming growingly unpopular. It plunges into “ruthlessness, arrests, assassinations, lynchings, mob attacks.” It looks like a desperate bid to assert its authority. She says, investigations related to Gauri Lankesh’s assassination have revealed hit lists, hideouts, safe houses, arms, ammunitions, and plans to kill and bomb.

The primary targets are minorities, Adivasis, tribals and Dalits who show themselves to be assertive. There is a reaction too. Bezwada Wilson, an anti-manual scavenging activist, speaks of a 5000-year old slavery that the Dalits have endured, which they want to shake off today. Equally important as targets are those who give ‘intellectual support’ to these weaker communities. All protest-related violence is attributed to them, especially Naxalite virulence, Maoist resistance and Dalit anger. The Administration feels that the intellectuals who promote them should be tamed; if untameable, eliminated.

No Action against Theoreticians behind Cow Vigilantism, Moral Policing

At the same time, no action is taken against those who give ‘theoretical and theological support’ to cow-vigilantism, moral policing, erratic culture defence, Romeo-hunting, intellectuals-elimination, since that group would include men like Adityanath Yogi, Mohan Bhagwat, Togadia, and other fire-breathing Sangh Parivar leaders. Of late, of course, there seems to be a softening of their tone. Is it that they are growing to ‘adulthood in power,’ ‘maturing in office,’ or late learning what India really is... or are they biding their time for a second round after the next elections?

The Central Government has banned the use of the word “Dalit” in their official documents, a word that united the diverse communities and gave them a sense of pride. The official stand likewise is that there are no ‘Adivasis’ in India, only ‘Vanvasis,’ an insult to the indigenous people. But ultimately, we know, what is right will have its way.

Some Sober Voices

We are encouraged that there are sober voices heard from time to time too. President Ram Nath Kovind as he took office began with a message that glorified India’s ‘inclusiveness.’ He said, “The key to India’s success is its diversity. Our diversity is the core that makes us so unique...We are so different and yet so similar and united.” In Thiruvananthapuram he affirmed, “Dissent, debate and discussion are acceptable in democracy.” Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, while releasing his latest book rejected all discrimination over religion, caste, gender, and emphasized the need for an ‘inclusive society.’ He said, nationalism does not consist in shouting ‘Bharata Mata ki jai.’ He called for the effective functioning of the legislatures.

Judges alone can ultimately protect minorities, and restrain uncontrollable Strongmen (Ibid 73). The Chief Justice Dipak Misra asked, “Let us move from darkness to light, from bigotry to tolerance...to a more inclusive society.” SC Justice D.Y. Chandrachund wrote thus to Maharashtra Government: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy.”    Even Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, said in Chicago at the World Hindu Congress, the Hindus do not look for dominance but to serve humanity. Would that these messages prove true in Indian society.

The Chicago Congress that drew over 2,500 participants remembered that 125 years ago Swami Vivekananda had lamented at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendent, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth...Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.” Does this explain why India has been falling behind even some of the poorest African nations in human development?

Believers in Democracy Must be United

Opposition leaders are promising to rescue the nation from such a condition. However, it is good for them to listen to what Yascha Mounk says: “In virtually every case in which Populists have taken power or been re-elected, ‘deep divisions’ within the ranks of their opponents have played a large role,” whether it be in Hungary, Turkey, US, or Poland (Ibid 190).  So the Opposition parties must search for Unity, not a rush for portfolios and prominences, not ‘soft Hindutva’ that passes more Freedom of Religion Bills, but a genuine love for democracy, closeness to people, commitment to the common good, and attention to the weakest.

(Published on 24th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 39)