The republic without a language

The more we use words like ‘saviour’ or ‘super hero’, the more we lose the language of democracy and dumb down the political discourse.

Updated - April 02, 2016 11:13 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2015 02:04 am IST

To politicise the masses is not and cannot be to make a political speech. It means driving home to the masses that everything depends on them, that if we stagnate the fault is theirs, and that if we progress, they too are responsible… — Frantz Fanon

The extraordinary thing about the Brazilian football legend Sócrates was his realisation that football was not the raison d'être in a world defined by injustice and oppression. A qualified doctor, he showed unprecedented courage in challenging his own nation’s military government, even while he captained its mercurial football team. For Sócrates, democracy and justice were primary; everything else, secondary.

Narendra Modi came to power on May 26, 2014. Since then, these questions have been asked incessantly: can Mr. Modi change India? Can he do what Manmohan Singh could not? Can Mr. Modi take India to superpower status? But the critical point is this: these questions are completely contradictory to the ethos of a democracy. It is the inability to rise above them that is the greatest crisis in Indian politics: the lag between the formal shell of democracy and its practice, the republic and its language.

That is why we already see ennui setting in about the Modi regime — things being the same, and fading hopes of a new India. But how can a nation of India’s size transform itself when people are completely divorced from the transformation?

People’s power is being systematically decimated and ceded to political rulers. Increasingly, individual leaders are seen as agents of change — a renowned scholar saw Mr. Modi as a potential Abraham Lincoln and a popular columnist sees him bringing development to India if not thwarted by “Hindu fanatical organisations”. Here, Mr. Modi the individual exists in a bubble separated from the social forces that brought him to power.

The wrong questions The more we pose questions from this framework of the leader as the saviour, the more we get tendencies like the complete negation of the parliamentary system and the role of the prime minister as simply primus inter pares or “first among equals”. Do we have another example of a Cabinet made so redundant by the omniscient power of the Prime Minister? If the early photo of Ministers standing like schoolchildren in front of the Prime Minister was ominous, the brutal clipping of the wings of the foreign minister, in a regime so focussed on making India a global power, is degrading.

If Dr. Singh’s office was rendered weak being subject to extra-constitutional authority, Mr. Modi’s has concentrated power in itself. Ironically, the weakest and the strongest Prime Minister have both struck at the edifice of democracy and produced a policy paralysis. The strengthening of the executive wing of the state is not the only problem; unprecedented attacks are being launched on the judiciary, too.

Despite these top-down moves, what is dangerous to the language of democracy is the servility of the people themselves. The government’s confrontational attitude towards civil society has not been resisted enough by the citizenry. A pliant media refuses to question the government. If before only Dr. Singh was silent, today the whole government is silent. It arrogantly believes that a republic can be built by the monologue of “Mann Ki Baat”.

The lack of resistance is pushing democracy as monologue. The fawning NRI audiences of Mr. Modi reinforce this, and reduce politics to superficialities. Of course, all mass and popular politics is superficial to an extent, especially in a media-saturated culture, but superficialities cannot devour all substance.

Witness the speech by Mr. Modi in Toronto, which was, like his other speeches abroad, ridden with theatrical hyperbole. Complex problems like India’s waste, which have dimensions of caste, class, technology, etc., were reduced to caricature. Unsurprisingly, the examples he gives to show a tectonic shift in cleanliness is Sachin Tendulkar cleaning up a street in Mumbai or two young women cleaning the ghats of Varanasi. That the Prime Minister can pitch his speeches at this level — seemingly addressing children — is incredulous in the Information Age. But they are met with rapturous ovation. The problem is not created by an individual politician like Mr. Modi; it is a reflection of the consistent infantilisation of citizens in these democracies, which have eviscerated their power. What is more concerning than the dumbing down of political discourse is the public’s response.

The fundamental problem is the lack of a critical mass of people’s organisations challenging the status quo and deepening the language of democracy around substantial issues of food, education, health and ecology. India’s great agrarian devastation is more than two decades old but, astonishingly, the 60 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture has not been able to generate an independent democratic movement that could bring the nation to a standstill.

The degeneration of political parties has led to the language of superhero as saviour. The Congress, with its nonexistent inner party democracy, is not the one that can deepen democracy. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, built on a regressive majoritarianism and now captured by a supremo culture, have always been fundamentally against democracy.

The mainstream Left parties, which had once built deep democratic roots and momentous people’s struggles, are now mostly a mirror image of the “bourgeois” parties. If the phenomenal victory of the AAP showed how even a minor tinkering of the language of democracy can enthuse the masses, its later travails show that even that can lead to resistance and implosion from within.

Decentralising power As writer and revolutionary Frantz Fanon recognised, empowering the masses means decentralising power: “The flow of ideas from the upper echelons to the rank and file and vice versa must be an unwavering principle.”

When Sócrates began to campaign for democracy against the military regime in Brazil, he started with building democracy in the lowest unit: his football club. Unless there are democratic organisations representing every walk of life, the language of democracy cannot be constructed.

If dynasties control parties, it is because the language of feudalism, of hierarchy and deference, pervades all other aspects of society. The attitude of the citizens in a democracy to their rulers should be that of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, to Alexander the Great. When Alexander went to meet the famous philosopher, who chose to live on the streets in penury, he was basking in the morning sun. Alexander asked him if he could do anything for him. Diogenes replied: “Yes. Stand out of my sunlight”!

Leaders, however illustrious, do not build democracies; people do. As Fanon put it, “the magic lies in their hands and their hands alone”.

The destiny of 1.3 billion people cannot be left to a single individual. Vibrant people’s struggles for democracy do exist, but are fragmented, and on the margins. They have to coalesce into new and robust social and political formations that are interested in building democratic language and institutions. Only then can we stop asking if the prime minister will change the nation’s future.

(Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada. E-mail: )

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