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Democratic disconnect

Print edition : Feb 26, 2010 T+T-
Socialist icon Jayaprakash Narayan addressing a rally in New Delhi in February 1975. Four months later, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and it lasted for 21 months.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Socialist icon Jayaprakash Narayan addressing a rally in New Delhi in February 1975. Four months later, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and it lasted for 21 months.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE fact that India has managed to sustain a multiparty parliamentary democracy for six decades, which has guaranteed to every citizen a certain minimum level of civil liberties and individual rights, is regarded quite rightly as one of its major achievements. The brief episode of the Emergency that interfered with these liberties taught such a lesson to those who introduced it that none has dared to repeat it since then. And the BJP-led governments attempt at revising the Constitution, which would have altered existing democratic institutions, had to be given up even before it had taken off. A certain basic democratic arrangement has thus come to stay, and the people have taken to it with a gusto that brings to grief anyone trying to upset it.

True, there are regions in the country where these liberties exist only on paper. There are also segments of the population, notably the tribal people, whose oppression is not just despite these democratic institutions, but is even carried out through their instrumentality. And, of course, the massive economic and social disparities that characterise Indian society not only remain but are widening at a terrifying speed. The democratic structure that still exists, nonetheless, is remarkable for a society whose caste stratification makes even the institutionalisation of juridical equality nothing short of a revolutionary achievement. The fact that the poor and the oppressed and marginalised groups have been vigorous in exercising their franchise, far more so than the well-to-do urban middle classes, is testimony to the sense of empowerment that, in their perception, the democratic practices have brought them.

And yet, there is an important sense in which democracy has been attenuated in the country during the last few years. This relates to the virtual elimination of collective praxis, which is such a crucial ingredient of any meaningful democracy. The people continue to enjoy the vote and exercise it, but they no longer act together as a collectivity on issues affecting their material life. Collective interventions, from the mere holding of a demonstration to participating in strikes and peasant struggles, have become a rarity. People do act together on issues involving identity politics, occasionally even when such politics takes the extreme and dangerous form of communal fascism; they act together for instance in demolishing a masjid or demanding a separate state or demanding or opposing reservation. But they do not act together as a collective that transcends ethnic, caste, religious, regional or communal boundaries.

This is striking since such collective praxis had for long been a part of our political life. Indeed, the anti-colonial struggle of this country, of which the democratic structure we have now is a legacy, was marked by an outburst of collective praxis, even though the tragic denouement of the partition of the country represented a negation of it. Collective interventions, however, continued into the decades after Independence and gave Indian democracy a vim and a vigour that unfortunately it has lost since then.

A few examples will illustrate the point. In Kolkata, in the early 1950s when tram fares were raised by one paisa, there was a remarkable popular struggle against it, led by the then united Communist Party, which succeeded in reversing the increase. Likewise, Kolkata had seen in the late 1950s the famous food movement, for which notable figures like Satyajit Ray had expressed public support. In Mumbai in the late 1960s, when there was an upsurge in prices, not necessarily on a scale larger than what is happening now, housewives had come out on to the streets in large numbers under the leadership of stalwarts like Mrinal Gore and Ahilya Rangnekar, beating their utensils (thalis) in dramatic protest demonstrations. In the early 1970s when inflation had made deep inroads into the living standards of the working class, there were impressive strike actions, including the Locomens strike, culminating in the famous railway strike. The raging inflation of the early 1970s was controlled by the Indian state through the expedient, inter alia, of turning the terms of trade against the peasantry, especially after the mid-1970s; but this, in turn, brought forth the massive kisan rallies on the lawns of Delhis Boat Club. Collective actions in short were a feature of Indian democracy, indeed its life-blood.

Starting from the 1990s, however, such mass actions have been conspicuous by their absence. As many as 1,84,000 peasants reportedly committed suicide because of the agrarian crisis inflicted upon them by the neoliberal policies pursued in the era of globalisation, but there were no significant peasant struggles or even kisan rallies against such policies. Leave aside the Telangana or Tebhaga peasant struggles, there were no struggles or demonstrations reminiscent even of a Mahendra Singh Tikait, let alone of Swami Sahajananda Saraswati or Maulana Bhashani of the pre-Independence period. And what is striking about the current period is the quietude of the people even in the face of perhaps the most severe inflation that has hit the country for a long time, especially in food articles. Nothing expresses the decline in collective praxis as clearly as this quietude.

This rolling back of collective praxis is indeed a characteristic feature of bourgeois democracy, which, while upholding and defending the rights of individuals, individualises all collectivities and thereby disempowers people, including of course the very individuals who are apotheosised as all-powerful, free agents. The bourgeois order, while formally upholding democracy, reduces it to a routinised affair involving empirical atomised individuals whose political choice is increasingly between parties that differ little from one another in their programmes. What we have in the neoliberal era, therefore, is a consolidation of bourgeois democracy in the country, which represents at the same time a retreat from the vigorous democracy marked by collective praxis of the earlier period. We are thus advancing to bourgeois democracy by attenuating the democratic content of democracy.

Indeed the elimination of the residual differences between the programmes of political parties is explicitly presented as an ideal in the neoliberal era. A veritable chorus of voices, for example, from the Prime Minister downwards, advocates that development must be kept above politics. Since the very definition of what constitutes development is an area of contestation, and hence must involve political conflict, to suggest that development must be kept above politics is tantamount to getting a consensus around one particular notion of development, namely that entailed by the neoliberal paradigm. It is to obtain universal acceptance for the neoliberal paradigm, to obliterate differences between the programmes of different parties, and hence to reduce politics to a vapid choice, little different from a choice between two alternative brands of detergents. Instead of letting the people have the freedom to choose between alternative agendas that affect their lives, it is to impose upon them one particular agenda around which a consensus has to be manufactured among all political parties. It is in short to attenuate democracy.

Of course, if such an agenda brought benefits to all, then the elimination of choice before the people could, perhaps at a stretch, be overlooked; but the fact is that it does not, which is attested to by all, including the government itself. Getting a consensus around development, therefore, is a plea for an endorsement of neoliberal capitalism, which brings palpable distress to peasants, petty producers and the workers.

The rolling back of collective praxis does not typically involve, to any significant extent, the use of the legislative organ of the state, which, notwithstanding all talk about keeping development above politics, has still not insulated itself from the people, as it has to face them in periodic elections. It is the other organs of the state that take a lead in such rolling back. The Emergency was a period when the executive took such a lead, but the salutary lesson learned from that episode has kept the executive subsequently on a leash. Of late, it is the judiciary that has taken the lead in rolling back collective praxis through its pronouncements against bandhs, strikes and demonstrations. The agenda of the consolidating bourgeois order of enfeebling democracy, by shutting out collective praxis, individualising the collective, and at best allowing some space to charitably motivated non-governmental organisations as the sole spokesmen of the people, has been increasingly pushed through by the judiciary. This agenda has the enthusiastic backing of significant sections of the urban middle class, who have been the beneficiaries of the neoliberal dispensation, and who, accordingly, look upon the judiciary as a sort of saviour.

The decline of collective praxis, therefore, has also been accompanied by a rise in the relative importance of the judiciary compared to the legislature, to which the media has contributed through its demonisation of politicians of all hues.

The implicit assumption underlying such judicial activism was articulated by the former Chief Justice of India, Justice R.C. Lahoti, who had suggested that the judiciary stood above the other two organs of the state. But this trend of judicial overreach received a setback when the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, questioned the Supreme Courts jurisdiction in the matter of the expulsion of some Members of Parliament over the cash-for-questions scam. No matter what future awaits such judicial overreach, the rolling back of collective praxis continues nonetheless.

Of course, why the people allow such a rolling back is a moot point. The fact that capital, especially, finance, is mobile across national borders in the current epoch of globalisation, means an enfeebling of working class resistance, which is necessarily confined to particular nations: any such resistance would drive capital away, causing a financial crisis in the short-run and an investment-cut in the long run, both of which will only worsen the plight of workers. Likewise, agrarian distress that arises not because of the activities of a physically visible oppressor, such as a zamindar or a jotedar, but because of the impersonal working of a distant market, scarcely allows easy collective mobilisation, since even the cause of the distress itself remains opaque for the most part. In short, the neoliberal era has an in-built tendency towards rolling back collective praxis. Such praxis can be revived no doubt through appropriate intervention by political parties, but the task becomes difficult.

Many, of course, would shed no tears over this decline in collective praxis, which they would see, much like the judiciary does, as anarchy, as holding the country to ransom or as coming in the way of our high growth rate; and there is no denying that strikes and bandhs cause inconvenience to others. Indeed, they are meant to cause inconvenience, which is why they are resorted to at all, so that the plight of those engaging in such actions is brought home to all.

There is also no gainsaying that they are often resorted to in situations where they patently lack justification. But this is a price that has to be paid for democracy, and for collective praxis that is an integral part of democracy. This price must be minimised; but this should happen only through collective praxis itself, as society learns to weed out frivolous, divisive and patently unjustified protests, not through judicial fiats or executive orders, which, in the process of preserving peace and order, end up attenuating democracy itself.

There is, however, another, far greater, danger associated with the collapse of collective praxis. It tends to get replaced by praxis of a different kind that revolves around exclusive identities, which can be divisive and potentially dangerous. Class mobilisations that cut across ethnic, religious, linguistic and communal groupings and collective praxis based on such mobilisations (which is the sense in which the term has been used here), also keep down ethnic, linguistic, communal and religious conflicts. Retreat from such praxis has the opposite effect, of bringing such conflicts back to the centre stage.

In fact, the problem of Islamist terrorism that the world currently faces is the outcome of the collapse of radical class-based collective mobilisations. The very countries that today are the breeding ground for such terrorism had earlier been characterised by militant, class-based mobilisations. The collapse of such mobilisations has brought Islamist terrorism to the fore.

This collapse, ironically, was in most cases engineered by imperialist intervention, notably by the U.S., which, therefore, has created the Frankensteins monster that confronts it today. Whether it is Iraq or Iran or Sudan or Indonesia or Afghanistan, all these countries had vigorous Left movements championing a progressive nationalism around which they mobilised large masses of the people. Coup detats backed by the U.S. destroyed the progressive forces in every single one of these countries and today they are hotbeds for the nurturing of religious terrorism.

The destruction of collective praxis in India has not been brought about by the intervention of imperialism. It has emerged as the expression of an immanent tendency of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, which has, of course, been aided and abetted by the state and its organs, with the backing of classes and groups that are the beneficiaries of the consolidating new bourgeois order. While it has been robbing Indian democracy of its earlier vigour, it has given rise to a triumphalism among these classes and groups about this process of disempowerment of the people. This triumphalism, however, is misplaced, since the destruction of collective praxis here will also create our own Frankensteins monsters, not just in the form of religious terrorism, but in other forms as well.

There is a further strong reason for this. Finance capital is always associated with big power ambitions. The successful implanting of neoliberal capitalism in India, in a milieu where finance is the leading element of capital, is bringing in its train big power ambitions among our own bourgeoisie.

The frequent references to the race with China, which even the Supreme Court has internalised now, and to Indias role as an emerging global power, are symptomatic of this. These big power ambitions can be realised only through some sort of adjustments with the U.S. and other leading capitalist countries. But this also means making common cause with them in their struggles, and hence making their enemies into our enemies.

Besides, all big power ambition is anti-democratic. As Karl Marx put it: A nation that oppresses another cannot be free. And since the quest for freedom is the essence of all democratic practice, such a nation must ipso facto be abridging its democracy as well. It is no accident that the leading capitalist powers that embarked on the Iraq war did so despite the fact that the majority of the people in their countries were, in most cases, opposed to it. India on its current political-economic trajectory is heading in the same direction, of emerging as a leading capitalist power, and becoming a member of the club of leading capitalist powers. But emerging as a leading capitalist power hegemonising other countries entails a reversal, not only of the vision of our freedom struggle but also of the vigour of our democracy that the freedom struggle had bequeathed to us.