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View: Democracy and its liberal discontent

With Narendra Modi’s massive mandate, a considerable minority among the electorate has found itself to be in gloom.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 25, 2019, 11.40 AM IST
The fact that different people will have different opinions on a hot-button ‘issue’ like Modi is understandable and visible even in a mandate like this.
Parliamentary democracy has a funny side to it. Even among its biggest admirers, this form of representational politics turns out to be sour if the votes throw up a disagreeable result. In other words, democracy sucks when you lose – or less philosophically, when your choice loses.

With Narendra Modi’s massive mandate, a considerable minority among the electorate has found itself to be in gloom. Vocally about the verdict and more silently about the nature of democracy itself.

But here’s the problem – liberalism rightly extolls the virtue of democracy. Liberals – whether in the ‘Left,’ ‘Centre’ or ‘Right’ spectral range of political belief – believe and support the ‘rule of the majority’ (that can include the well-being of minorities) and oppose majoritarianism that gives sole primacy to the majority. Now, it seems to liberal Indians that democracy has made the wrong choice: not about voting Modi back to power, but about voting him back while effectively clearing out any de facto national-level opposition for the time to come.

Some upset about the verdict – the quantum of the verdict – still thrash on about ‘EVM abuse,’ rigging, intimidation, mind control and, probably, even the heat. Most others fall back dejectedly on the ignorance of hoi polloi – literally ‘the many’ – made worse by media, especially of the social kind where pigs can fly, the world could be flat and you may be finally made aware about a humiliation you were not aware of before.

Only a few may have ascertained that when one lives by this democratic sword, one also loses by this democratic sword. The majority of India’s voters – in conjunction with smart electoral management on the part of the BJP – have got what they wanted: an unimpeded, unobstructed, wilfully arranged Modi-rule.

Reams have been written about the appeal of Narendra Modi, some explanations having their source in Freudian psychoanalysis and the Indian voter’s penchant for a mai-baap State, now distilled into simply a mai-baap. The fact that different people will have different opinions on a hot-button ‘issue’ like Modi is understandable and visible even in a mandate like this.

But what has rankled the liberal minority of India – inaccessible to the masses and now ignored because they hardly matter – is that the majority may have chosen majoritarianism with their eyes wide open. In other words, they have got what India’s (liberal or conservative) elite always had and what the rest always wanted: a world fashioned in their own image. Feudal India, whether in Lutyens’ Delhi or beyond, didn’t make things any smoother.

But in this turnaround – ‘polarisation’ suggests the semblance of symmetry – much of what rankles the Indian liberal is considered natural, even welcome, for the majority. With this mandate, this majority is no longer to be seen in simple religious/Hindu terms, but a larger one that includes and subsumes religions, castes and communities. It is to be seen in class terms, the success of a nationalist, socialist project where Bastilles have been, according to this mission, stormed.
Sans-culottes, ‘without breeches’, the subaltern class of late 18th c. France, celebrating the storming of the Bastille prison, Paris July 14, 1789.

In this undeniable mandate – ‘will of the people’ being the standard operating phrase – what sticks out most, though, is the candidature and subsequent victory of someone like Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal. The fact that the prime minister stated last week that “she has sought an apology but I would never be able to forgive her fully” sits mighty precariously with her victory at the hustings for the BJP. Thakur’s victory also suggests that there are people who, at least, don’t mind if their representatives in Parliament consider Nathuram Godse a patriot for killing Mohandas Gandhi or that she is on trial for terrorist charges. This is not popular ignorance on display. This is about popular knowingness.

Sure, the people of Bhopal who voted for Thakur voted for Narendra Modi. She would have, in all likelihood, lost if she had been fielded by another party. Conversely, if Modi shifts to Congress tomorrow, the battered Not-So-Grand Old Party would probably win a landslide. So, Thakur’s candidature seems to have been ‘only’ to counter the ‘secular’ credentials of Congress candidate Digvijaya Singh.

Perhaps the only remaining option -- that should have been a choice from the start -- is for the liberal to listen to voices other than one’s own, hold one’s position and belief while not summarily dismissing others’.

Instead of trying to showcase to your gallery your liberal quotient by dissing the popular choice, in philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel E Dennett’s words, try to “transform your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion”. In other words, for strategic sake, liberal India should strive to talk to illiberal India instead of echo-chambering away.

But the lingering thought remains for liberal India: if Pragya Singh Thakur today, who is kosher tomorrow? Is winnability really all that matters for this dispensation? Or are the lines being shifted to accommodate something bigger than the ‘true representation of the people?’ And does the ‘will of the people’ have any nogo area at all? Which by itself is such an illiberal thought that the liberal Indian is left to shudder about democracy – and his or her troublesome discontent with it.

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