Retrieving ideas of democracy and nation

Within much of modern Indian thought, the idea of India as a nation implied the assumption that it would invariably be a democracy — i.e., India realising itself or constituting itself as a nation will necessarily do so as a democracy. The relationship between the two was not problematised.

There were some exceptions though: the Gandhians laid stress on Swaraj but this idea, while not being not opposed to democracy, did not directly connote self-rule of the citizen-community. The socialists and communists who were interested in the idea of democracy, and uncoupling it from the idea of nation, tended to lay stress on the economic prerequisites and redistribution of power to realise the former. There were some thinkers such as V.D. Savarkar who argued that the idea of nation took shape in India in the epochal past, but they dwelt little on democracy. Some Islamic scholars such as Maulana Maududi introduced concepts such as “theo-democracy”, i.e., the mode of self-rule where believers ordain their common affairs; but apart from the hierarchisation and exclusion such a conception threw up, it was hardly linked to the idea of nation as a bond or fellowship that marks it off from every other kindred entity. There were those who thought through the lens of caste, examples being E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, K.M. Panikkar and B.R. Ambedkar and also Adivasi leaders such as Jaipal Singh, who argued that the idea of nation has to be profoundly rethought in India and that such rethinking was needed to foreground democracy in an anticipatory mode.

While posing the relation between the ideas of the nation and democracy before the emerging public in India in this fashion is a gross simplification, and the arguments that people made and the positions they took were far more complex, this debate came to an abrupt end, or merely became the ideological fixtures of political parties, once India embraced constitutional democracy and held periodic elections under universal adult franchise. Interestingly, certain measures that the current government has embraced in the name of constitutional rectitude have reopened new fissures within the Indian body polity. It has made it imperative that we reopen the relation between the nation and democracy in India afresh even to sustain meaningful versions of constitutional democracy and periodic elections.

Trajectory of democracy

There were complex questions that had to be explored in the wake of Independence, and particularly following Partition. One was if India is a nation, what kind of a nation is it? If democracy is the mode of political association of this nation, what kind of democracy is conducive to it? However, giving short shrift to these questions, an amazing constitutional architecture came to be put in place. Amid a setting of bewildering social diversity and inequalities, India stepped into holding periodic elections on the basis of universal adult franchise.

The elite who were at the helm of operationalising constitutional democracy and periodic franchise made some place for diversity and preferential considerations to the disadvantaged in the Indian public. Some were aware of the course such a complex constitutional and institutional ship was to set sail in and were apprehensive of its future course. Others wished it bon voyage for a variety of reasons including utility calculations. Whichever way one looked at it through a phalanx of institutions dovetailed to constitutional democracy and periodic elections, the elite thought the future of India lay in operationalising a set course of action rather than rethinking its foundations.

The course of action that India took came to be theorised by the likes of the late Rajni Kothari who argued that democracy is alive and kicking by accommodating diversity within the policy-making process through a distinct type of party system, that he termed one-party dominance. There was much claptrap that came from elsewhere too.

Comparativists such as Atul Kohli argued that India demonstrated “a delicate balance” between “forces of centralization and decentralization” and “the interests of the powerful” have been pursued “without fully excluding the weaker groups”. Consociationalists such as Arend Lijphart thought that the Indian case demonstrated that democracy is viable — in spite of diversity and inequality — if it accommodates them in the governing institutions of a polity. These arguments came to be profoundly qualified by their proponents later, in the context of the failure or inadequacy of these institutions, and the rise of powerful dissent movements from below. However, their emphasis remained on rectification of the course and the institutions and policy measures arising therefrom, rather than envisaging the future of India beyond these confines.

A notion of the nation

The rise of the ruling party has placed a particular notion of the nation on the political agenda, and it has sought to refract constitutional democracy and elections through it. It has confined constitutional democracy to the bare letter of the law and periodic elections to merely subserve a majority in the House. In the process it has shorn them off from even residual considerations of democracy as the self-rule of the citizen community and the nation as the outcome of this process.

One of the most ominous expressions of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s version of the nation is found in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or the CAA, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens, allegedly on the anvil but officially denied in the face of widespread resistance. Several commentators have already pointed out that the CAA calls into question the foundations of citizenship in India, the role and place of the majority in a political democracy and minority rights and reorders them to suit the notion of the nation the current ruling dispensation cherishes.

How do we go about retrieving ideas of democracy and nation authentic to our context? One route leading to the same is subjecting the demands that the popular upsurge has voiced after the dilution of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and particularly following the enactment of the CAA, to reflective consideration. There are many angularities to the popular upsurge of the scale that we are witnessing in India today. But certain issues stand out if we read the kind of slogans that have been voiced, the songs that reverberate, paintings and plays that hold the crowds in rapt attention, and the extent and intensity of participation, and connect them to the popular demands that have been voiced by the very same people overtime.

In the Northeast, there is a widespread feeling that the CAA has watered down the autonomy that they sought for their culture, language, and land rights and very forcefully voiced before the Bordoloi Committee of the Constituent Assembly. The large-scale participation of Muslims in this upsurge demonstrates that they do not want to be kept out but be treated as equal citizens. There is universal outrage about the communication blockade in the Kashmir Valley.

But what is more is the participation of the rest, especially students in this movement. They seem to be saying: We do not want you to shove down our throat your pet notions of the nation and rules. Stop befuddling us with your doubletalk. There are matters of much more profound concern and urgency that we need to put upfront, and since they can be pursued only together, we need to reopen a conversation across our divides. The nation can only be that big and small that such a conversation affords.

While this popular upsurge does not give us a full-blown ideal of democracy that we wish to be and the image of the nation it recasts, the indicators are all there to see. There is a surplus in the ideas of nation and democracy that formal rules of law and modes of representation can never exhaust, and you cannot trump the former by invoking the latter.

Valerian Rodrigues was a Professor at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 9:36:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/retrieving-ideas-of-democracy-and-nation/article30506752.ece

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