Transcending democracy beyond elections

There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies… And this seems to be the final revolution. — Aldous Huxley, 1961.

The Left, the liberals, and those in political opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi are in shock about the mandate given to his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh. The question that especially arises in their mind is how could people, especially, the poor, support a party that has wrought the hurtful effects of demonetisation. The bafflement has produced responses among the commentariat and politicians which term the people as dumb, and brainwashed.

Former U.P. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s reaction to the results was: “people may not have liked my Expressway and voted for Bullet train.” Here one is reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic suggestion to the Soviet-backed Communist government of East Germany which was trying to delegitimise the massive worker’s rebellion of 1953: Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?

Misreading reality

On the other side, are responses which celebrate the victory of the BJP as a celebration of the wisdom of the people. And once the “wise” people have delivered a verdict such as this, then policies such as demonetisation, and “surgical strikes,” are necessarily correct and cannot be questioned.

The argument that people are gullible and easily brainwashed, or that they are intelligent and always make the right choices are both simplistic. For it abstracts people from their social contexts with vast discriminations of caste, class, religion and gender, and a culture that is meant to justify these hierarchies. It is a culture that is heavily weighed against rational and critical thinking.

Not understanding these concrete realities and the constraints they impose lead to superficial analysis. Thus, the general election of 2014 and the present U.P. elections are seen as a communal vote whereas the general elections of 2004 and 2009, and the recent Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections are secular votes. There are, of course, elements of truth in this. But the pertinent question here is how do people alternate between being communal and secular?

A problem with these readings is that it produces a particular reality: that of reducing democracy to elections, or I what I call the electoralisation of democracy. This fails to understand the larger structural changes, especially in the economy, that are taking place in society. This is the reason why election results produce such bafflement and, also, the helplessness among the progressives in countering a verdict such as that of U.P.

In seeking to bring about social transformation only through elections, the progressive forces fail to understand the shifting ground underneath the surface of electoral contests. Therefore, the electoral defeat of BJP will not mean that its communal world view does not enjoy social currency anymore, or the victory of the Congress party is a triumph of secularism in society. The last two and a half decades have seen the distinctive emergence of Hindu majoritarian nationalism as an electoral force. But that outcome is the result of a decades-long social transformation.

Authoritarian populism

To this majoritarian nationalism, we can add the new tendency of what the theorist, Stuart Hall, has called as authoritarian populism. Authoritarian populism is the ability to fuse together disparate disenchantments arising from the crisis of economic development and politics into an authoritarian nationalist solution. It is not that socialism, secularism, and anti-caste ideologies have failed as concepts. Rather, these ideologies have not built, in practice, an educational system which goes beyond the privileging of technical education, an everyday culture which goes beyond caste, gender, and religion, and an economic framework based on real equality. They have advanced largely only as electoral forces.

 

In between elections, these ideologies have not struck roots, allowing other forces to take their place. In castigating the people for not making progressive choices, what is missed is their lack of schooling in a culture of critical thinking. People process information on the basis of the pedagogies they are exposed to. A commercial, media-controlled popular culture and an educational system suffused with the dominant cultural values is not the most conducive atmosphere for the flourishing of a real democracy.

Is it surprising then that a Hindu nationalist and authoritarian populist solution has become appealing in the present, or that the ruling party could appoint Yogi Adityanath, the Hindutva leader who has openly issued inflammatory communal statements in the past, as U.P. Chief Minister?

Propaganda thrives

Here, the factual accuracy of the actual achievements of an authoritarian populist regime seems immaterial. People just believe them to be true. Nevertheless, arguments based on “post-truth” to explain this are misleading. The problem is not that truth or “objective facts” are irrelevant (except for those who willingly propagate untruths). Rather, there are few avenues to access truth with the increasing domination of the media by corporate monopolies, and that the competence to distinguish between truth and falsehood is impaired in a pedagogical system where rationality is reduced to instrumental goals, and in an economic system where all ethical considerations are sacrificed at the altar of profit.

It is in these conditions that propaganda thrives and the 10,344 WhatsApp groups of the BJP in U.P. operate sending (mis)information such as how the Muslim population in India, which is 14% now, will be a majority by 2050! This is believed even by the well-to-do, and educated classes. How do we then blame the oppressed classes with little access to even a technical education, and when their own historical traditions of critical thinking have been appropriated or diffused by the dominant society?

At the other end of the spectrum, the superlatives used even by progressive critics to describe the U.P. victory as a Modi “wave” or “magic” also participate in the reduction of democracy to elections, and elections to one individual. Here, there is no discussion of the systematic attempts at communal polarisation through localised riots under way since many years. The spectacular amount of material resources at the command of the national ruling party and that were spent in the elections are not scrutinised.

And in a nation in which caste is the single most important marker of one’s life chances, there are shocking proclamations like the “Modi wave” signifies “the end of caste”. This ignores the adroit micromanagement of caste complexities in U.P. by the BJP.

Building a counter move

Any move to build an oppositional movement to authoritarian populism and majoritarian nationalism will have to, of course, contend with the popularity of Mr. Modi. But to talk of a seamless Modi wave ignores that it is not a monolith and it still has breaks and contradictions even in a social context largely pitted against rational thinking. Even electorally, the Modi wave does not seem to have touched the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal, where in 1,111 Assembly seats, the BJP has 23, which is 2%. For those who revel in the wave, these States — which have nearly 25% of the Indian population — do not count.

The argument that one should accept a verdict without question because it is the people’s mandate ignores the fact that large numbers of people arrive at decisions under conditions which are not always rational or democratic. Democracy is not a popularity contest. And the dominant majority is not the ethical majority. If in a village of 1,000 people, 600 people are in favour of stoning a woman to death for the alleged crime of adultery, is that democratic because there is a majority decision?

If the bane of Indian democracy — its reduction to electoral majorities and manoeuvring —must be overcome, then people cannot be castigated for being brainwashed, or for delivering unpalatable verdicts. And rather than elect a new people, it is necessary to build a new people by building new social conditions, which is immensely more challenging than winning elections.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada

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