India 2020: Coming of the Facebook Democracy

Indians are feeling ashamed that the Rupee has touched a new low today, hovering around Rs 67.5 a dollar, presumably on account of the Government's insistence to pass the Food Security bill, which will guarantee 5 Kg of Rice and Cereals every month for every poor person, estimated to be about 800 million people. In a way, such shame is useful, because it was completely absent even in the face of starvation and poverty visible to any casual traveller to India. And, surely, the shame in the decline and fall of the Rupee is profitable too, as this would allow the well-endowed to simultaneously display their patriotism and make some money by hoarding dollars or sterling and helping the free-fall further. 

Events such as this bring out in sharp relief what democracy is really about in India. At one end, there is this claim about the 'muddy', 'corrupt', 'populist' staff that the government does at an enormous cost to the economy, somewhat around 2% or 3% of the GDP (depending on who one listens to): This is ususally seen as 'vote buying' initiative greeted with silent disdain and occasional outbursts on social media, cheered on by International Press.

At the other end, there are outrages on the falling Rupee, generating Facebook chatter about the rising costs of holidays abroad, the outrage in rising prices of petrol, the entitlement of subsidies that the Indian state gives to the relatively well off and costs no less than 5% to 10% of the GDP (whoever one listens to); this is usually seen as representative of Indian public opinion - isn't this a young country with huge middle class - a 'truly' democratic voice, which the mechanics of Indian politics usually overlook.

India was always a divided country, a multitude of class, caste, linguistic groups. In a way, India was always a project of India, of bringing together these diversity into one identity: Democracy and constitutionalism, which India adapted from the first day of its independent existence, were to enable this oneness.

However, the implicit optimism that the Indian citizens will be the participants in that project, and hence help along the work in progress, have been belied. Instead, it seems now, we created this parallel sphere, the sphere which can now be called the Facebook Democracy, where certain people with privilege and access, but less involvement in the project of India, could point to imperfections, and impose parallel ideas, all encouraged and helped along by recognition by power elites internationally as the true representation of India.

This is not just a symptom of the divided nature of India, I shall argue, but a phenomenon to be considered on its own merit. The description that Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze used in their recent book about India invokes a picture: Islands of California-esque wealth among the landscape of Sub-saharan poverty. Indeed, India was always like this (though it is a shame that 60 years of Independence did not flatten the landscape, and somewhat made it worse), but, as a redeeming feature, there was a sense of shame (though it was expressed in strange ways, such as protests against films of Satyajit Ray, as it depicted poverty). While I don't claim that there was ever an inclusive politics, the parallel politics of 'true democracy', the one which claim to disregard the ground reality and live in a superpower illusion, is possibly only as old as Facebook.

One could point to its emergence in the economic reforms of the 1990s, or the shining moments when lots of jobs came to India post-Dotcom, but the defining moment of this chasm may be found in George W Bush's twin fascination with Indian Middle Class and Democracy: The middle class that formulation conceived, and in effect created, is a neo-liberal beast out and out, global, ethereal and unconcerned with the poverty of India and impatient to pursue their own agenda, solely and over everyone else's. Helped along by the expansion of social media, this segment assumed a life of its own - ironically becoming the first true 'Indian' generation, but devoid of responsibility or compassion for their own countrymen, or of people from the country they left behind, physically or figuratively. This connected middle class Indians in India, and those power elites abroad who left at the juncture of independence and after, in fear of democracy (as they feared mob rule - a flight documented by Devesh Kapoor, in his 'Diaspora and Democracy'), giving rise to a powerful social coalition, with prestige, clout and money.

The battle for India now isn't just a battle of classes, castes and regions; it is now a battle of two democracies, a popular one pitted against a Facebook version. Both have their own echo chambers, and given the nature of interactions, each one is remote, obscure, from the other. The social structure, distribution of jobs and income, popular culture in movies and TV, all reflect this battle of privileges: A global elite unified one end of the spectrum, the Indians on the other.

It is surely not unique about India: One could argue, as Harvard's Dani Rodrick does, the Global Markets, Nation States and Democracies can not co-exist, and of the three, democracy is the most likely casualty. I shall argue that this has now been set in motion in India, with the emergence of Facebook democracy at the expense of the real one. This may indeed be the undoing of the project of India; and may be the undoing of India itself.


Shahenshah said…
You have little appreciation of the people you seek to vilify as bourgeois-Marie Antoinettes. They are the poor who have recently found a bit of money and hope only to realise the Government are ever happy to send them back.
Well, may be I am one of them myself: Living a life away from India in relative privilege. My view is very bourgeois too - all I was claiming that the project of India could be completed through democracy. So, I am just pointing to democratic discipline, and that the new 'alternative democracy' is essentially non-democratic, because it glorifies minority opinion and undermines majority interests, and that its emergence and continued prominence will destroy democratic process, around which consensus was built since the time of French Revolution.

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