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Indian democracy, then and now

The level of sectarianism was kept under restraint before, because never before did a sectarian political party achieve such overwhelming political power.

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
3 April 2019
Pandit Nehru after the historic handing over of India, August,1947.
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Personalities/PA. All rights reserved.

The season has come in India when political leaders promise heaven on earth. Rhetoric flows with full force. Allegations are flung at rivals. The standard claim that “our sinners are saints; your saints are sinners” is repeated incessantly. Vicious memes fill the air waves. Fake news travels faster. Digital thugs hound dissenters. The Police withdraws or files complaints. News of financial frauds, tax evasion and official economic statistics are released or suppressed.

TV anchors scream and shut up any guest questioning their set agenda. The ruling party leaders fire the weapons of “patriotism” and religion to generate hatred. The “traitors” are asked to go to Pakistan. A visitor to India might get the impression that India is teeming with Pakistanis!

The dominating discourse is not about growing unemployment or farmers’ suicides. It focuses on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that he is a watchman (chokidar) and the opposition leaders’ response that this watchman is a thief (chor). The ruling party leaders insert the title chokidarbefore their names in social media accounts! This is to show their solidarity with the leader. A mature nation seems to regress.

A mature nation seems to regress.

The mother of all poll battles has begun! India has done it 16 times, winning global appreciation. Yet as it gets ready to elect the 17thLok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), the spectre of an endangered democracy haunts a large section of us. Some intellectuals have a premonition of the death of democracy – not in darkness but in daylight. This despite the fact that no mad military colonel lurks in the wings. Nor is he expected to emerge in the near future.

The soul of India

This anxiety is caused by the demons of democracy. The power-seeking parties have opened superstores of dreams. Party members are traders striking deals with any group ready to field them. The pre-poll season is witnessing a heavy cross-traffic of leaders defecting from one party to another. Party manifestoes are not worth the paper they are printed on. All leaders herald the end of ideology. The campaigns presume that voters have lost their minds! Voters are ready to be seduced with false promises.

Perturbed by religious polarisation, mob lynching, intolerance and suppression of dissent, most writers and artists say that this election is fought over the soul of India. What is at stake is the very idea of India. Commentators use words such as ground-breaking and watershed moment. The voters, it seems, will decide the future of India’s pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness.

A five-yearly mass participation exercise, publicised by the Election Commission as a “joyous festival of democracy”, should not have caused such dismal foreboding. This time the Commission may have to deal with the largest number of complaints about the violation of the moral code of conduct by ruling party leaders, and even officials are making political statements. It has started issuing notices.

Most of the media houses, business leaders and even some bureaucrats have openly aligned themselves with the ruling party. The rising numbers of criminal-candidates highlight the criminalisation of politics. The Election Commission is tracking the suitcases of cash flying in helicopters or the liquor bottles travelling in trucks. Many voters do not trust promises and want to exchange votes for cash.

Ultimately, the voter is the king in a democracy. The people deserve the leader they get.

Ultimately, the voter is the king in a democracy. The people deserve the leader they get. Today’s America elected Trump.

India’s political culture has been vitiated by unprecedented waves of populism, jingoism, sectarianism and confrontational politics. Much has been written about the wounded spirit of democracy in India. State power, the ruling party activists, mobs and social and traditional media have been used to curb dissenters and inflame passions designed to assert majoritarianism.

As if traditional threats to democracy such as money and muscle power were not bad enough, social media has appeared as a new demon. It is used by the enemies of democracies at home and abroad to disrupt logical debates and poison human consciousness. India can hardly shine as a lone beacon of true democracy, an island where the freedom of expression flowers, dissidence is cherished and a civil political discourse enlightens the voters.

Treachery and betrayal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics say India has been turned into a Republic of Fear bedevilled by majoritarianism and religious polarisation. For five years, the government tinkered with the very idea of India which, they say, will be demolished if the BJP gets a fresh mandate.

The atmosphere prevailing in this pre-poll season rings alarm bells. No instrument can record the level of hate or mental pollution, but enough evidence comes from the newspaper headlines, TV debates and campaign speeches. Verbal and physical attacks on a religious minority are reported frequently and the role of the police in the BJP-ruled states attracts criticism.

Prime Minister Modi, who brought a record victory to his BJP in the 2014 parliamentary elections, continues to set the agenda for the national debate. The promise of development has become less credible because of the government’s dismal economic performance and Modi’s unfulfilled promises. His party at first tried to revive the agitation for building a Ram temple on the site of a mosque that was demolished by the right-wing political activists. That issue had paid political dividends to the BJP earlier, but this time the Ram temple movement did not get much political traction. So, the campaign was switched off.

Then came the killing of the para-military force personnel by a home-grown terrorist in Kashmir, turning national attention to Pakistan that inspires and at times organises such attacks. Modi promised revenge and there followed air strikes on a terrorist camp in Pakistan. Modi and the BJP leaders took full credit for the military operation and plugged it into the party’s election campaign. The subservient media helped unleash a wave of anti-Pakistan nationalism. It applauded the Prime Minister for changing the narrative and putting the opposition in its place.

Modi and the BJP leaders took full credit for the military operation and plugged it into the party’s election campaign.

Within days, India conducted the first test of an anti-satellite weapon. Its success, in a rare instance, was announced by the Prime Minister himself in a broadcast to the nation! It was implied that it was all because of him and had nothing to do with Nehru or Indira Gandhi, who assiduously built India’s core competence in science and technology and turned it into a space power. His minister jumped into the fray by saying that the Congress Government did not allow satellite kill-weapons to be tested!

National security has been politicised. Foreign policy is held to ransom by inflamed public sentiments. Pakistan looms large over India’s poll scenario. This despite the fact that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, unlike the CIA of the past, takes little interest in Indian elections because it is too busy organising terrorist attacks on India. In fact, a retired intelligence chief of Pakistan says BJP rule is in his country’s interest because it will disrupt the equilibrium in India. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has his own suspicions that an undesirable event will yet be staged before the Indian elections. Pakistan’s terrorists may see it as a moment to get the oxygen of publicity.

India’s TV channels show in one night as many as six BJP leaders calling the opposition leaders friends of Pakistan and saying that the opposition’s victory will be celebrated in the neighbouring country. Calling the opponents anti-national, they suggest it is the bounden duty of every voter to vote for the only nationalist party called the BJP! The BJP leaders’ tirade is supplemented by activists uploading supportive videos on social media.

A limited range of headgears

The opposition leaders face a double whammy since they are not just anti-national but also anti-Hindu. BJP leaders have been calling upon the Hindus for years to “declare with pride that we are Hindus”. Reflecting India’s diversity, Prime Minister Modi is seen donning a variety of headgears. However, he has avoided wearing a skull cap! He tweets promptly about every natural disaster or man-made tragedy but did not use that media to comment on the killings in a New Zealand mosque.

In this dismal scenario, one may recall that democracy had a glorious beginning in India. This young Republic did better than the UK or the USA some 67 years ago, when it went in for universal adult suffrage despite a very high level of illiteracy and the preponderance of poor people. It surprised the world by winning what was seen as the greatest gamble of democracy. It proved pessimistic foreign observers wrong. India set a unique example for other developing nations.

Once politics was largely an instrument of public service. The party officials would visit a prominent member’s home to persuade him to accept the ticket and fight elections. The political opponents engaged themselves in civil discourse, shunned populism and discussed the issues vital for uplifting the people. Then there was the wisdom of the illiterate voters mentored by Nehru’s poll campaign speeches on development, scientific temper, modernity and on an equal status for the minorities. Nehru publicly admired those who fought for freedom with him but became his political opponents. Opposition leaders today are lucky if they only get sneered at by the Prime Minister. Speeches are suffused with threats, inflammatory remarks and thinly veiled abuses.

Going back to the fifties one understands why Nehru has become the prime hate figure in the eyes of the BJP leaders. All his political life, Nehru, like Gandhi, tried to protect the young nation from the poison of sectarianism.

Millions clapped as Nehru called development projects ‘temples of modern India’ and asked the people to reject superstition and rise above sectarianism. Today if a Congress leader were to call an irrigation project a temple, millions of social media trollers would abuse him for wounding the sensibilities of Hindus.

Nehru took the sectarian forces head on.

Nehru took the sectarian forces head on. He spread public awareness of this danger to the unity and the integrity of the nation. In his very first campaign speech in 1951, he alerted the voters against those spreading the communal virus in the name of Hindu or Sikh culture as the Muslim League did once in the name of Islam. He said if these sinister communal elements came to power, they would bring ruin and death to the country. He was cheered loudly as he declared: "If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the grounds of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside."

"If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the grounds of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside."

In the very first elections in 1951, the Hindu right-wingers, who had kept away from the freedom struggle, appeared in full force to challenge secularism. But their three parties failed to win more than 10 seats. Communalism and the “monster of casteism”, identified by Nehru as the main enemies of democracy, have now become major determinants of electoral behaviour.

The conflict between sectarian and secular forces is not new. But the level was kept under restraint before, because never before did a sectarian political party achieve such overwhelming political power. Now any admiration of the Nehruvian ethos provokes the activists deployed to sully his image. But setting the scene is necessary if we want to attempt an analysis of the pre-poll scene – coming soon.

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