The failure of political imagination is what is most distressing about today’s India. It is a failure of both the left and the right, at the local as well as the global arena, and it is a failing all the more ironic because it comes hidden behind the celebration of Indian democracy. Perhaps the tragedy actually begins there…
…At one time, politics was one of the most open of India’s clubs—more accessible than the bureaucracy, the educational system, or even the market. Politics allowed new groups and new imaginations to enact their aspirations in a hopeful landscape. This same political domain had a tremendous ability to absorb disorder, confident that disorder was the beginning of a new equilibrium. In fact, the cycle from disorder to new order added to the democratic imagination, which was how a Laldenga of the Mizo underground could surface as a chief minister through a democratic electoral process.
Indeed, the politics of those initial years turned the American journalist Selig Harrison and his book India, the Most Dangerous Decades (1960) into laughing stocks. Harrison had failed to realise that the new entrants and their demands did not constitute noise, or even unwelcome music. Rather, they were voices demanding representation in the festival of politics. Instead of a Cartesian exercise, a binary of either-ors, Indian politics as represented then by the Congress party was a mosaic of adjustable pieces. Besides, in the early days, identity was not a problem in India. One could live in a forest of individualities and still believe in the garden of citizenship. There was also an overall consensus about nation, state, unity, socialism, rights, and even non-alignment.
Back then, Indians would take pride in defence minister Krishna Menon’s performance at the United Nations and the cosmopolitan confidence he exuded. We also knew he was the founder of the Penguin series. One remembers Menon telling an American, “Don’t tell me about my English. I learnt it, you just picked it up.” The celebration was short-lived, however, and soon enough the wrapping of confidence broke. This happened for several reasons.
The 1962 Chinese attack in the Northeast and Ladakh was the harbinger. It showed that our seeming self-assurance was not an endocarp but a veneer. The Emergency years which came more than a decade later—and still under-studied and repressed within—showed that Indira Gandhi on her part had indeed internalised the Selig Harrison Syndrome. The Emergency was more than a period of temporary dictatorship, it was a solvent which ate into our institutions. Banks, universities, trade unions, the judiciary, parliament, bureaucracy, all tumbled like nine pins and we have still not been able to put our institutions together again.
We interpreted the pathology of that time in a personalised way, psychoanalysing the Nehru dynasty, reading dystopias into the original utopia. But no one understood that the Emergency had institutionalised itself. India was no longer a command economy of dictatorship, but represented a Keynesian plurality where Bihar, the Northeast, Kashmir, Punjab, all offered a variety of everyday totalitarianisms.
And now, there are no dearth of indicators to tell us where we are at the end of more than five decades of Independence. Firstly, our glorious development projects became quietly ethnocidal, to the extent that India created over 40 million refugees from development projects. This is more refugees from the pax of development than from all the wars fought after Independence. Secondly, India has over one million paramilitary troops dedicated for internal order and control. All awards for gallantry the Indian army got between the 1972 war and the unfortunate Sri Lankan encounter are said to be for action against our own people. To these indicators, we can add the following: the Law Commission reports that there are over 90 million cases pending in Indian courts. Assuming two families per case, one in five Indians alive is today involved in litigation.
Faced with such data, how do we still call ourselves the world’s largest democracy? Like cloth that shrinks, obviously we have shrunk the concept of democracy. To use another metaphor, India’s democracy was once like the coconut. One cannot define a coconut “as a palm tree that gives oil”. That is too monocultural, too illiterate a definition to embrace what is after all the tree of life. But that is precisely what we did to democracy, reducing it to mean nothing more than elections and electoral politics. With the help of the mass media and its attention span of “five unendurable minutes”, politics has got reduced to facile terms such as the “incumbency effect”, “swing factor”, a few graphs, and some adolescents pontificating around it. The violence, the negotiations, the ideologies, the struggles of politics never figure.
Several factors aided this decline of the institution of politics. To begin with, the Congress itself declined. It had started out as the glue or enzyme of India’s polity, something more than a rainbow coalition, for it allowed colours to mix and produce new hues. The Congress, like some strange Periodic table, at one time incorporated every category of Indian politics—Muslim, Dalit, Brahmin, tribal, ethnical, secular, non-secular, socialist, capitalist. It was truly multi-ethnic, multi-economic, multi-cultural. A bit like Hinduism, it was both invertebrate and yet distinctive and protean. The decline of the Congress was devastating, for everyone in its rainbow stripes held the makings of another party. And so the Janata took other backward classes, the Bahujan Samaj party gobbled the Dalits, the Muslims moved away.
Even as the Congress failed, politics got criminalised. Once, the gangster and the politician were distinct, but today in large parts of India they are bonding into one. Over one-third MLAs and MPs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have criminal records, including many charged with rape and murder. These gangsters wear their records as epaulettes, operating from jails with mobile phones. As the CBI reported after the Bombay blast of 1993, the underworld dons, Dawood Ibrahim and Haji Mastan, would both have won elections hands down.
The diminishing idea of politics is reinforced in the lethally antiseptic confines of foundations and international agencies. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and even well-meaning groups such as the United Nations’ specialised agencies, have developed what may be called the “Goodboy Theory of Democracy” (GBT). Using an indicators technique, the GBT’s speciality is to reduce the wider web of democracy into single strands. Thus, human rights is reduced to child labour. Anticipating the manna of grants, hundreds of ngos suddenly turned advocates against child labour. There is no one left to understand the complexities of issues, and so on.
The GBT demands that all treaties must be honoured no matter how iniquitous they may be. So, whether it is the CTBT, or the WTO, or even the whole slew of human rights treaties that US has forgotten to sign, India must be a dutiful signatory. The GBT also argues that rights are a complement to the market and that what sustains the democracy is the market. The marketisation of democracy commodifies rights and destroys the commons that sustain the life-world of so many marginal groups.
The Goodboy Theory of Democracy is accompanied by a homogenisation of Indian citizenship. In the debates within the Constituent Assembly half a century ago, citizenship was seen as an enabling device to allow the individual to participate in wider economic and cultural processes. But the static notion of citizenship that has evolved blinds one to the variety of margins and marginals, which are seen to be outside the pale of citizenship. To the list of traditional marginals—tribals, landless peasants, women, Dalits—we must now add displaced groups, slum-dwellers, old people, and all those rendered obsolescent by the development process.
The proliferation of marginalities in India is accompanied by the privileging of two forms of citizenship, the middle class and the non-resident Indian. Today, India boasts of a well-to-do middle class that is the size of Europe’s population. Besides the fact that this middle class must be ‘making it’ at someone else’s cost, its emergence raises paradoxes of democracy that the psephologists and political theorists have not yet tackled. As the late C.V. Seshadri, the eminent scientist, used to say, “I hate politicians who can’t count, whose rhetoric says every Indian should be literate. Good intentions.” Seshadri would add the paradox that if all Indians could read, there would not be a single tree left in the country. These Zen paradoxes of democracy remain to be resolved.
Beyond the obviousness of the middle class as consumer citizens, one must also take note that, demographically, besides the large proportion of the elderly, most of India is under 30. Even advertisement agencies do not quite know what this category needs. But one thing is clear, they will be chased by the ghosts of unemployment even as they dream of Nike shoes and Benneton colours.
The NRI as the extra-territorial citizen has taken up a considerable part of the Indian imagination. Even Hindi movies now cater to NRI nostalgia, with hybrid blends of hamburgers, conjeevarams and the Silicon Valley. This imagination of the diasporic Indian needs careful study, for its lobbies work more effectively in India than abroad. It enacts the imaginary of Khalistan more ably in Canada and the grape farms of California than in Punjab itself. But what is bloodless and virtual in one place, becomes bloody and terroristic in the other. Unlike their remittances, the violence of the NRI is not accountable.
Neither the political economy nor the displaced dreams of the diaspora has been fully understood. The NRIs’ global success and their need to transform local politics or economics warrant a wider scrutiny and debate. Meanwhile, the NRI involvement in Indian politics reminds one of a wry rejoinder that M.N. Srinivas, the doyen of Indian sociology, made years ago to Kathleen Gough, a ‘revolutionary’ anthropologist. “We shall shed blood and make a revolution,” said Gough. Srinivas, silent till then, drawled in his Oxford–Kannada English, “Yess Katha leen, our blood, your revolution.”
So how do the pundits, and the polity as a whole, respond to these issues? The fact is political analyses in India is in a terribly distressing state. Not one issue is followed to the full, while simultaneously we have joined the global celebration of democracy inaugurated by groups like National Endowment for Democracy. The psephologists crow that democracy = elections + social movements, an equation that can be considered as illiterate as Soviets + electrification = communism. What the illiteracy of the first forgets is institution-building, the issue of governance, the decline of the commons, and the reduction of the democratic imagination to matters of security and individual rights.
There is another kind of impoverishment here, the impoverishment of the global ideas of democracy, which have become homo-genised. The Lowest Common Multiple Theory of Democracy fails to realise that transitions to democratic rule in Nigeria or South Africa, the possible transitions to normalcy in Sri Lanka, the return to democracy in Eastern Europe or Nepal, the threats to democracy in India or Indonesia—are all different stories. The mechanical indicator approach de-sensitises the observer to the real problems of these countries. It blinds us to the new globalisation of evil as evidenced in low intensity warfare, the new terrorism a la the LTTE, or even to the irresponsibility of finance capital.
Our democracy experts sometimes fail to read even their own data. For instance, electoral surveys indicate that the Indian people make a clear-cut distinction between elections and governance. They celebrate elections as a festival of freedom in itself, but the public is at least clear about the fact that a vote in elections is no guarantee of governance. Secondly, the voters have understood that local parties respond better to local problems than the national groupings, and it is in this context that we have to view the new arrival in our midst—coalitionalism.
Firstly, coalitionalism is not the politics of instability. It may instead be likened to one of those recent, and very successful, multi-starrer Hindi potboilers. The Amir Khans, the Shahrukh Khans might dominate but the Anupam Khers, the Nana Patekars, the Gulshan Grovers and even the Johny Levers have crucial roles in the script. The Congress might have declined but the Congress model has been reborn as an overarching model of coalition politics. Certainly, this coalition model is noisy, like the Congress model preceding it, but the din hides a certain basic stability.
Thus, today, India operates in terms of a multiplicity of two-party systems. No national party can survive without local alliances, yet each state has a clear-cut two–party system: Akali Dal-Congress in Punjab, Marxists-Congress in Kerala, Shiv Sena-BJP vs. Congress in Maharashtra, Congress-BJP in Gujarat. What we have here is not instability but a decentralisation that India’s federal system has long been seeking but has not been able to achieve. Coalitionalism has created more innovative possibilities for decentralisation than a dozen administrative reform reports.
While democracy is thus here to stay, snug as a second–skin on the body politic, the tensions are real. Our notions of justice, marginality, community, secularism, security and development need a spring cleaning, if not a desperate exorcism. Mere agitationist politics around any one of these issues will not do, nor will ngo alliances created to seduce funds from Western foundations desperate for political correctness before anything else.
Look at the range of political actors and the limits to political imagination. The left parties have long exhibited signs of autism, as seen in their extraordinary inability to respond to the events of Eastern Europe. There has also been an image change which comes from a transition in leadership. Instead of the dignified honesty of an A.K. Gopalan or E.M.S. Namboodripad, the party is entangled in the middleman dealings of H.K. Surjeet. Radicalism has escaped the party and the trade unions, and now, if it exists anywhere, it is among the ngos, where left radicals have added to the democratic imagination and the human rights movement. The left today has little to say on globalisation, and Vandana Shiva and Suman Sahai perform better on gene piracy, or at Seattle.
The Marxist imagination, like the museumised Gandhian imagination, needs to rework itself around concrete issues. These could be entitlement to water, the protection of workers in industries closed for polluting, or around unorganised groups like construction workers and fisherfolk. But red is colour-blind to green, and the desperately-needed marriage of political economy and ecology has begun in divorce.
For its part, the Congress is a national party determined to live in nostalgia. It lacks strategy, yes; but most of all, it is paralysed by the grand emptiness of Sonia. If the left is autistic, the Congress suffers from aphasia. And neither the Congress nor the left even knows how to harness the secular imagination. Someone does, and unfortunately it is Laloo Prasad Yadav. He can use secularism without blushing, he can bellow secularism. He loves doing it, and the populist imagination dances to his call.
But the real dangers of Indian democracy lie in its two most powerful forces—populism and communalism. The latter is represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party, but it is naive to treat the BJP as a singular entity. In fact, treating the party as a parliamentary incarnation is like playing out the virtual fantasies of Vajpayee as a roseless Nehru, and Advani as a still-potential Sardar Patel. It allows one to play out inane Vajpayee vs. RSS scripts. There is no real contradiction here, for at the structural level the BJP is not a Janus-faced entity but a four-headed one. There is the BJP itself as the parliamentary phase, the RSS as ideological wing, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as the cultural police for the diasporic NRI, and the Bajrang Dal making up the lumpen wing—a potential fascist mob.
The level of support for the BJP goes far beyond its own party members, and includes a wide penumbra of middle class and even tribal support. The party plays on every kind of fear, from the historical to the futuristic. It promises to defeat the Moghuls all over again, even while loudly tackling the inanities of Deepa Mehta. But the crucial point is that this BJP quartet always initiates and sets the discourse. And it has an actor for every occasion.
The RSS cadres cut deep into the countryside—they were among the heroes of the Andhra and the Orissa cyclones. The organisation caters to the lumpenism of unemployed youth on the one hand, and on the other, it plays the opera of Pokhran-II—with such stunning brilliance that it collectively stiffens the middle class penis into orgiastic joy. It is slick in its debates not because it has the argument but because it has an unerring sense of its opponents’ weakness. Both the left and secular forces find themselves tongue-tied, even though the RSS is more illiterate than them.
The RSS historians are no match for the Thapars, Habibs or Sumit Sarkars but instead of debating history, they are drawn into a maze of files, procedural details, account books, audits, time-tables, little to do with the quality of thinking. When attacked by a BJP sympathiser at a conference in Canada, a left-leaning historian went into a tortured explanation as to how the left academics were merely “erratically nepotistic”, whereas those of the RSS were “consistently nepotistic”. True, but if the historian had half the street-sharpness of a Govindacharya or an Arun Shourie, he would, rather than apologise for the pseudo-secularism of the left, have attacked the pseudo-swadeshism of the RSS-BJP-VHP composite. In this manner, time and again, the left-seculars have let the debate be determined by the BJP and allowed it to appropriate terms like “nationalist” and “patriotic”.
The right, like Ronald Reagan earlier in another democracy, creates its own soap opera of righteousness, while the left has to work overtime confessing to errors. But beyond its RSS ideology—to call it “culture” would be to give it too much credit—the BJP has few ideas of its own. It is an appropriator of discourses that others have invented. Its swadeshism would have turned Gandhi violent, but it is precisely to a diasporic nationalism that it appeals to. It creates an ersatz nationalism, a machismo that strengthens every supine middle class spirit convincing them that the subaltern has struck back.
The foreign policy of the BJP is invented by the Congress, its sense of coalitions by the Janata—only the BJP is able to package them better. Whether it is the vitriol of Uma Bharati, or the realism of Advani, or the think-tank chutzpah of Govindacharya, or the suaveness of Arun Jaitley, it has it all. As a result, the BJP has helped the RSS to burrow itself deep into the capillaries of our society, into media, teaching, social work and business. In all this, the supreme irony—and tragedy—is that neither the Congress nor the left, sticking blindly to their mechanistic secularism, realise that their real ally is religion. Hinduism can
easily defeat Hindutva, armed with a programme of reform. But where are the secularists when they are needed to come up with innovative answers?
The other soap opera of depoliticisation in India is to be found in the post–Mandal politics of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Bihar. There is an elite trend among the “Fab–India socialists” (after their designer kurtas) who see Laloo Prasad as spearheading a democratic imagination. They see him as epitomising Mandalism, the ideology of the other-backward-classes, rising phoenix-like out of the movement led by the socialist Jai Prakash Narayan. He also embodies a “folk socialism”, according to these aficionados of “electoral politics”. He is secular, he is shrewd, he challenges Delhi, he is news. But Laloo represents the de-institutionali-sation of democratic politics. He represents the limits of Mandalism, which beyond populism and corruption, has no theory of distributive justice.
If the BJP captures ersatz nationalism to create Indian pride, Laloo Prasad harnesses a similar sense of pride—dignity for Bihar and the downtrodden. There is deep cynicism here, in the feeling that since no politician fulfills the promise of development, Laloo Prasad at least creates the participatory soap opera of local pride. The problem is, the former chief minister offers little else. He is anti-women, anti-tribal, and incarnates the politics of casteism at its worst. Mandalism, rather than becoming a search for equality, becomes a casteist nightmare. If Sanjay Gandhi represented the other extremity of his grandfather’s Nehruvianism, Laloo Prasad is the end of JP’s socialist dreams.
A lot has been said of the Marxist politician and the Congress functionary, but the socialist has not received the same attention. It is necessary to engage with the nature of the socialist personality and his/her politics. There is a link between the bloated ego of individual socialists and the populism they represent. They are fascinated by politics but represent at best a version of politicking. They love the grammar of factionalism and eventually have the least to offer, individually or collectively. One needs a deeper psychoanalytical portrait here to understand the limits of the Mandal imagination. Some have called it, Toffler-like, as the third wave of politics. But it is important to study whether it is a “creative” wave of Mandalism or a truncated bully-boy version of politics. For there would be cause for genuine sadness and erosion of hope if the real choice were to be between Laloo Prasad and the RSS.
Where then do the possibilities lie in terms of politicians, movements, currents? What are the future dangers? The response can be couched once again in terms of the failure of the political.
India has recently suffered a spate of natural disasters—floods, earthquakes and cyclones. We have repeatedly celebrated Amartya Sen’s homilies that famines cannot exist for long in a democracy, that the power of democracy is such that famines and cyclones, like truth, will out. Of late, one has begun to wonder if there are not certain dents in the popular reading of Sen. The floods in Bihar wiped out innumerable villages, which have disappeared both physically and from the imagination. Beyond the demands of disaster tourism, the cyclone in Orissa has by now been forgotten. Popular anger dismissed the Gomang government, but it was all a political waste as the issues of continuing survival and rehabilitation never came up. Orissa will soon be as forgotten as Bhopal.
There is then the politics of displacement around Narmada and other development projects, where the displaced realise that they have no means of articulation within electoral politics. Certainly, the defeated and the marginal exude ethical power when it is magnified by the likes of Baba Amte and Medha Patkar, but this alone is unable to get them redress. Clearly, what we need to do now is recast Gandhian politics to present times, for its ability to so effectively combine ethics and politics.
Then we have the depoliticisation of debate on the major treaties and laws, which will willy-nilly affect the people. Whether it is the bill for privatisation of insurance before Parliament, the CTBT, or the WTO, they all share one weakness in common. They have been the subjects of expert committees and NGO campaigns, but have all singularly failed to permeate the popular imagination.
There is a thundering silence on defence and war. National security appears a zone of silence that our dissenting peace groups have been unable to penetrate. The nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, the very nature of terror and low-intensity warfare, all demand a range of political responses, but this is where Indian democracy is at its weakest. There is failure of the imagination on a crucial aspect—the more India decentralises, the stronger will be its sense of unity and centre. But this understanding will be remote as long as even the seemingly-committed movements continue to treat issues of war and violence with
Finally, while the average Indian mind is both curious and cosmopolitan, it tends to be empty of empathy when it comes to the regional neighbourhood. The notion of neighbour, so crucial to a globalising democracy, is just not there. As a polity, as state, as civil society, our role in enhancing the democratic possibilities of South Asia has been negligible. We believe we are a superpower but we still operate with the mind—the pettiness and arrogance—of a Patwari. Imagine, if we could replay the politics of water with Nepal, dream a new ecological collaboration with Bangladesh, create a university in exile for refugees from Burma, or even create negotiable spaces for Sri Lanka. Indian democracy as an imagination cannot grow amidst a stereotyping of the neighbourhood.
But the biggest failure of India lies in its inability to meet, on behalf of its one billion people, the onslaught of globalisation. Often serving as an ngo to the powers-that-be, the Indian state has been absent-minded about its power. The rhetorical outbursts of politicians and bureaucrats fail to hide the fact that the homework which the WTO and other negotiations demand have not been done. But an even larger failure in this arena is that of academe and the ngos themselves. It is a failure to understand the institutional demands of this globalisation process.
There is the usual noise about the budget when it is announced, and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha is graded like a not-too intelligent student, as someone who has to survive a round of “guess questions”. But what one misses is a real sense of what makes up the country’s political economy: the dynamics of the parallel economies, the pressures on the domestic economy, the devastation of the commons, the problem of the biomass economy, and finally, the notion of economics itself which has no language to gauge the issues of suffering or displacement.
Indeed, globalisation has caught an entire generation of radicals flatfooted. Dissent has become difficult and co-option easy. Hundreds of ngos now function as extension counters of the global regime. Their behaviour as a phenomenon has no sense of irony. It is thus that a senior activist can study the impact of foreign funding on the Indian economy and society—with foreign money. But if you look out at the academic and activistic landscape, there is little critique of unemployment, and little sense that the cost of education, energy, health and transport will all increase. There is no demand for a social audit of globalisation, and no feel for the institutional stresses it is going to create.
The universities are being told to privatise, but what this mean in real terms is the marginalisation and immiseration of the social sciences and the humanities. The turfs for dissent and plurality are being systematically uprooted, in the federally-funded Indian Council for Historical Research, the Indian Council for Social Science Research and the Indian Council for Philosophical Research. All this is being justified as a result of it being the right’s turn to misbehave, but there is a fundamental destruction of institutions underway, institutions which have a critical role to play in the study of Indian society of the past and the future.
What we need is a third force, a web of resistance that can reformulate the Indian problematic, re-energise the imagination of Indian democracy. Where then do the possibilities lie? There are little crystal seeds of innovation all over. There is the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and its struggle to create transparency by demanding the right to information from the state in Rajasthan. There is Chandrababu Naidu’s efforts to render cyberspace democratic. One must also mention his gallant efforts to rescue neighbouring Orissa after the cyclone struck, moving quickly to restore the possibility of governance in Bhubaneswar. There is Digvijay Singh seeking to institutionalise panchayati raj local government in Madhya Pradesh. There is the Central Pollution Control Board and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee attempting to create a less-polluted Delhi even if it has to still balance the tensions of ecology and justice.
We require a means to link together this rumour of possibilities, this gossip of alternatives. Dissent and dreaming have to be re-kindled. There has to be a new vision of the political—beyond the aridity of the RSS with its quack swadeshi and the lazy crudities of socialism. The possibilities lie in connecting the varieties of decency, honesty, inventiveness, the search for alternatives, and the networks of little radicalisms into a new web of politics. For the sake of India’s billion population, we have to reinvent the political like Gandhi did. Every thinking woman and man must turn scientist, politician, activist, philosopher, not as the Marxist dream of a leisure-time, but as a prelude to the new dreams of democracy.
India is one of the great compost heaps for the renewal of ideas. As a civilization, as a nation, it has been one of the greatest clearinghouses for ideas and inventions. We have to reinvent ourselves to renew our democracy.