Republic at 70: Pride and prejudice

Republic at 70: Pride and prejudice

As we celebrate 70 years of our Republic and the inception of the Constitution of India on January 26, 1950, it should serve as an occasion to assess the state of the health of our democracy. India’s transition to a modern democracy has taken, and continues to take, different paths and turns, both democratic and authoritarian.

There is an inherent asymmetry in the political economy of governance, between the powers of governments and large corporates, on the one side, and the relative weakness of individual citizens and communities often considered as of subaltern status — scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, minorities — on the other. From time to time, potential conflicts of interest — real or perceived — emerge and challenge the sense of fraternity that we otherwise share. At such times, one of the tasks of our democracy is to enable equitable adversarial engagement. This is less a matter of being critical of government and more about eternal vigilance and maintaining a state of awareness about what our own roles and responsibilities are in holding the State to account. It is about speaking up when something is wrong and not letting half-truths or received ideas gain credibility and guide the pace and direction of our advance as a nation.

The work of democracy is to break down the stereotypes that constrain free speech, disagreement and dissent, and citizens’ thought and communication. After all, the limitations to our freedom manifest only in contested spaces and amidst divergent views. A case in point is the view that the persistent, albeit relatively small chorus of protests — some orchestrated and others not — against the Citizenship Amendment Act, do not deserve attention and are in the first place, disqualified for any serious or respectable platform at all.

This is a plainly anti-rational argument that can, and indeed does, spill over to similar other matters of public interest. The wages of democracy — liberty and equality — cannot be predicated on some slogan, political party lines, or dogma. Nothing impairs the citizen’s role as much as filtering, careful silence, and patriotic bluster, and these are not alternatives to informed debate and evidence-based decision-making. However, a caveat would be in order: the hyperbole that is sought to be articulated by a motley crowd of self-professed intellectuals, armchair activists, and retired civil servants that India’s democracy is under siege and that the Constitution is under attack does disservice to India and its citizens. There can be little doubt that India is a beacon of democracy and freedom and, as a nation and a people, strong enough to deal with the transactional challenges that are part of the process of evolving into a modern democracy.

The social terrain of India’s working democracy is diverse and complex — there are communities within communities — and therefore difficult to negotiate. If democracy has to work, thrive, and grow into a modern political culture of equitable engagement, citizens need to go beyond the comfort provided us by our caste, class, language, religion, and region that routinely blinds us to the reality of others. In responding to contested ideas or potentially conflicting situations, there are no rules by which citizens can know what to say or do, nor should there be, in the true spirit of democracy. Not committing to a single standard — the principle of universality, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander — takes us on the road to a vacuous democratic space, where pride and prejudice rule.

There is a set of difficult choices facing India’s young democracy, and from a citizens’ perspective, it is important to recognise what work democracy does in their everyday lives:

First is the idea that every citizen represents something to her community and therefore needs to be engaged in the standards, processes and institutions of public governance that help improve the community’s welfare. Reinforcing the participatory approach to local governance will help yoke the idea of representative government and civic participation together.

A good starting point is the civic services. Civil society organisations need to provide just a little more context to the workings of democracy by strengthening social mobilisation of citizens on public issues to forge a collective will and foster community action. This will help overcome how powerless the ordinary citizen often feels in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful nexus of authorities — the political class, the bureaucracy, and the contractor.

Second, the compelling need to democratise the production and distribution of knowledge as central to the growth and progress of modern Indian society. This simply means, as Antonio Gramsci emphasised in his Prison Note Books, “all men are intellectuals — teachers, doctors, lawyers, office-goers, workers, students — and must be marshalled in movements for social change on matters of public interest.”

The focus should be on advocacy, reinforcing the right to education, health, livelihood and civic amenities, for those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. This effort should focus on building community capacity and agency to participate in the governance process. It is precisely because we have failed in social mobilisation, community agency remains weak, placing the community as the subaltern while the government and the intelligentsia determine the discourse and the course of events, often completely divorced from what matters to the common man.

If as citizens we do not relate to the value of participatory governance in our daily struggles, we cannot responsibly cope with the burden of democracy. The ideas of liberty and equality resonate only because they associate themselves with the aspirations of the people. Looking ahead, we must consider the sage advice of Edward Said, “Speaking truth to power is no Panglossian idealism: it is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.”

If we do, Indian democracy will find its own voice and speak for itself in the voice of its citizens.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)