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When democracy is merely top-dressing on a feudal base

Music & Noise
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 23:31 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 23:31 IST

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The new parliament building has been inaugurated. The ferocious lions atop this structure have replaced our compassionate simha-s. A symbol of ancient monarchy, the sengol, has been given a seat inside the abode of representative democracy. The President’s constitutional position has been trivialised. The Prime Minister has successfully portrayed himself as a decisive, yet considerate, raja.

Above all, ‘We, the people’ have lost in this rejig of our democratic tradition. We have participated in this twisted re-imagination and are comfortable being ‘his’ praja, rather than citizens of a democratic republic. This is an encapsulation of our present political state.

Just as we did a month ago in Karnataka, in every election, we come out to vote in fairly large numbers and usher in a new government. Political commentators and psephologists celebrate this routine act as a festival of democracy, a celebration of people’s will. But is it?

Exploring this thought could be perceived as an elitist arm-chair exercise that refuses to accept that every election is an honest expression of the common person’s will. I could also be accused of stripping people of their agency. But I will stick my head out and say that electoral choices do not reveal our state as a democracy. If we were to ask ourselves why we vote, the answers would be predictable: better governance, basic necessities, education, jobs, healthcare, infrastructure, socio-economic benefits, etc. None of this can or should be belittled. But it is very unlikely that the need to uphold the ethical values embedded in our Constitution or the yearning to create a harmonious and equal society will feature in the responses. These are not our guiding principles as citizens and consequently take a back seat during elections.

Irrespective of the political parties, the number of candidates with criminal records who are elected at all levels of elections is very high. Political parties are unabashed about choosing such candidates. Even for the sake of public posturing, they don’t find it necessary to express remorse or place the blame on political compulsions. This informs us of our character as a society. Maybe that is the mistake I am making; presuming that we are indeed one society living within a commonly accepted and internalised Constitution. We are a socially divided lot, both vertically and horizontally. Each group defines or is forced to accept its place in our society depending on the space they occupy. In such a scenario, it is but natural that political outfits in search of victory capitalize on this segmentation. That this further divides us is immaterial to them. Constitutional morality has no place in such a social context. Not just for the candidates but also for the voter. The entire election process, unfortunately, entrenches us in social divides, with each caste and class group jostling for more benefits, even if that means the marginalised will be pushed closer to the precipice. Ethical moorings do not matter.

Beginning from our homes, circles of relatives and friends, schools and up to our workplaces, sectarianism of various hues governs our behavioural pattern. Exceptions and moments of crisis kept aside, even our acts of kindness target those who are socially proximate to us! Within such an environment, the vote is nothing more than an expression of loyalty to a certain community or a transactional device. Overarching catholicity, the un-encumbered sharing in space, thought, resources and cultures that our Constitution seeks is lost in the wind. Unless there is a social learning about democracy as a philosophy and practice, how can we expect its reflection within the voting booth. We are puppets who are manipulated and sway in directions that we think will benefit us the most or, even worse, hurt some other group. Therefore, this celebration of every election as a sign of a healthy democracy needs to be received with a pinch, may be even a bucket, of salt.

Democracy cannot be reduced to the quinquennial act of casting a vote. It demands that we participate in nurturing values of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity. We do that by being critical thinking citizens who challenge power, question our elected representatives, focus on those who are disenfranchised and endeavour to create a compassionate society. Passive and lethargic citizenry can have no place in the democratic process. In 2006, in his address to the National Development Council, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said, “…our collective priorities are clear: agriculture, irrigation and water resources, health, education, critical investment in rural infrastructure…along with programmes for the upliftment of SC/STs, other backward classes, minorities and women and children. The component plans for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will need to be revitalised. We will have to devise innovative plans to ensure that minorities, particularly the Muslim minority, are empowered to share equitably in the fruits of development. They must have the first claim on resources…” He was articulating the UPA government’s answer to the BJP-led NDA government of A B Vajpayee, which had sought re-election on the ‘India Shining’ slogan. Modi and the BJP have since twisted Manmohan Singh’s statement to make it appear as minority appeasement. What he meant though was that “India must shine, but it must shine for all.”

The point is that there needs to be a selfless awakening, especially within the powerful majority. But this is not possible in a status-quo society that derives strength from the brute power of caste, faith, gender and money.

We must view the BJP government’s successful articulation of bigotry even within the precincts of Parliament with our eyes wide open. While we cry hoarse about the ugliness in their symbolisms, policies and actions, we don’t seem to recognise that they are able to execute all this successfully because we, especially the socially powerful, subscribe to a feudal and undemocratic culture. A culture that continues to give ‘our’ way of life primacy over all constitutional sensibilities. As concerned citizens, we must transform our social character. This will require patient and systematic work over a long period of time. The BJP’s time in power will end, but that does not guarantee a new beginning. We can turn the corner only when democracy becomes a habit.

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Published 03 June 2023, 19:18 IST

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