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The script of another ‘parade’ on Republic Day

The protesting farmers have revitalised the democratic polity and the Republic now stands morally recharged

January 26, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:30 pm IST

The January 26 ‘parade’ on the Rajpath in the nation’s capital is permanently lodged in the national imagination as the finest republican rite. The ritual is designed to underline the republican nature of our governing arrangement, by demonstrating to ourselves — and, to the world — that the armed forces formally offer salute and respect to the civilian authority, symbolised by the President of India. This theme will be re-affirmed this year also, notwithstanding that the traditional parade has over the years been used to ‘show-case’ India’s military might. There will be no dilution of this national celebration.

Yet, the capital will also witness another parade — a parallel march by the (protesting) farmer s, all in their loose-fitting uniforms of insurrection. This tractor rally can only be showcased as a veritable carnival of defiance and a festival of protest. Never before has the Republic been presented with such a rival celebration of democracy.

A crisis by the functionaries

The contrast between the two celebrations brings the nation face to face with a crisis creeping upon us — a crisis of legitimacy of traditional politics. Ironically enough, the crisis has been precipitated by those very functionaries who are entrusted with the responsibility of upholding the Republic and nourishing its democratic sustainability.

As the farmers protest the three contentious “farm laws”, the government argues that it is merely trying to ‘reform’ the agriculture sector. The NITI Aayog managers and other corporate hired hands are entitled to chant the ‘reform’ mantra. But each and every ‘reform’ entails a certain social cost and economic pain, and it is the task of democratic politics to strive for a balance between pain and gain through a process of conciliation and compromise.

However, that traditional responsibility no longer finds favour with the rulers of the “new India”. Consequently, the farmers, too, have felt compelled to go beyond the traditional intermediaries of political parties and have confronted the Narendra Modi regime with a non-party upsurge. The farmers’ siege is not just against these three laws; they are challenging three crucial elements in Mr. Modi’s inexorable authoritarian project.

It is only one voice

First, the Modi project vehemently insists on denying authenticity to voices other than those from the Sangh Parivar. The ruling clique arrogates to itself not only the monopoly of desh bhakti but also claims a total control over wisdom, gyaan , initiative and inspiration; correspondingly, it denies legitimacy to civil society and its voices. Not for it a contraption such as a National Advisory Council. All non-Parivar non-governmental organisations are suspect in its eyes, just as the very idea of a social movement is denied any validity.

Predictably, the ruling clique has vindictively used the agencies of the state — the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency, the Enforcement Directorate, the intelligence agencies, the income-tax man, etc — to harass, coerce and eventually neutralise and silence dissent and dissenters. It continuously updates its blue book of tricks — how to disrupt, discredit and diffuse democratic dissent; and, it has perfected the standard operating procedure on how to use and manipulate the media to demonise democratic ideas, sentiments, grievances and anxieties.

Manipulate and marginalise

Second, the Modi project is pivoted on an unprecedented use of the state’s resources to manufacture consent for the ruling clique and to fabricate adulation for the Leader. In this quest, society’s inherent capacity for notions of nationalism, patriotism, xenophobia have been cynically exploited; the armed forces and their valour have been manipulated for the ruling clique’s narrow partisan ends.

Third, all these exertions and excesses have resulted in the marginalisation of the traditional political parties; the manufactured euphoria and exultation for the ruling clique have been used to devalue the most sacred site of traditional politics — Parliament. Conventional wisdom holds that in a parliamentary democracy, the Opposition must have its say while the government must have its way; now, the Opposition is not even allowed a say. Once Parliament got degraded, it was easy to browbeat the other constitutional institutions — the judiciary, the Election Commission of India, etc — into becoming the ruling clique’s enablers.

Cumulatively, parliamentary democracy stands debilitated as the effective instrument of compromise, conciliation and harmony. And the government reaps what it has sown. Unsurprisingly, the farmers see no merit in the three laws almost dubiously passed by Parliament; nor do they trust the government’s assurance, no trust in its word; and, even the Supreme Court was indirectly conveyed that its intervention was not going to make a difference.

Misreading the farmers

Having choked off all conventional avenues of negotiations and grievance -resolution, the Modi government found itself confronted in a losing stand-off with the farmers. With all the familiar arrogance of an authoritarian regime, the ruling clique failed to read the Punjab protesters. They represent an old tradition of defiance of the imperial imposition. For want of a better term, let us call it the Bhagat Singh constituency. The farmer-activists have re-discovered the old spirit of defiance and are happily prepared for consequences and sacrifices. For the first time in the last seven years, the ruling clique has not been able to win the moral argument.

Bad optics for government

On the contrary, for the first time, there is an Opposition that is not prepared to cede any kind of moral superiority to the Modi regime. The optics are all to the government’s disadvantage — small and marginal farmers fighting to safeguard themselves against the predatory corporate giants and the ruling clique has to position itself in this fight against the small man. Worse, the farmers have blunted the Modi regime’s standard operating procedure in dealing with Opposition voices and groups — unlike the Shaheen Bagh protest, the farmers could not be demonised as Pakistani agents, or as the Khalistai agents provocateurs; worse, a Hindu-Muslim divide could not be introduced. The onus was and remains on the Modi regime to fire the first shot.

The farmers have created their own imaginary Stalingrad, exhilarated in defiance, unyielding in defence of their land — and they have worked out a morally-uplifting narrative, with heroes, martyrs and joyful sacrifices. They have displayed discipline, solidarity and purpose in challenging the Modi regime and its authoritarian encroachments. In this insubordination, bordering on subversion, the protesting farmers have revitalised the democratic polity; and, because of their upsurge, the Republic stands morally recharged. No small achievement this.

Harish Khare is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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