India 2020: Re-Imagine!

What seems a lack of choice in most cases signify a need to make a hard choice: It is actually quite obvious in most pursuits of day-to-day life, where such a situation will be called a 'dead end' and the usual way ahead at that point would neither be left or right, but rather a reverse or a plunge. However, in political life, such dead ends seem to lead to sleepwalking, choosing bad alternatives just because one does not seem to have a choice, and putting up poor arguments justifying the unjustifiable. One wouldn't complain if such conciliatory behaviour did at least lead to a status quo, and not resulted in, as it does so often, the rapid decline of the standards of governance over the last two decades. Clearly, the compromise does not save us, but rather pushes us down the slippery slope of corruption of democratic ideals, limitations of our liberty and worse, makes all of us so cynical about politics that we are likely to reinforce our  fate ourselves.

But, if we can step back, the options rarely look as bad. One of the great achievements of the modern politics has been the political party, an institution which has monopolised our political imagination. In a somewhat cynical turn of events, we, individuals, have been tutored to devolve our political activities to political parties of our choice. However, while this may have worked in early, small political communities, this practice has eventually resulted in alienation and disconnect, with politics emerging with a life of its own. In a way, what we have now is the rise of political machine at the expense of citizenship, and this lies at the heart of the current powerlessness that many individuals across the world feel about the political process.

To be sure, the hard choice that I talk about isn't personal, but collective: No one individual will deem himself/herself powerful enough to question the 'system'. The personal costs of doing so can be enormous; besides, such political action runs directly counter to the consumer ethic of modern life, where what one consumes defines the person and therefore, every moment of a person's working time may need go into expanding a person's consumption portfolio. Political activity, even in pursuit of good life, should be best left to people who are already endowed well financially, so goes the quintessential middle class wisdom of the day. Hence, our lack of political choice is indicative not of the general lack of leadership but the poverty of our own political engagement.

Nowhere this lamentable trend is more visible than in India, touted to be world's most populous democracy but one built without social emancipation and political equality. It fashioned its political culture around representative democracy, a high ideal for its constitution makers but a convenient excuse for its successive governments for at least the last thirty years. It is an illustration why a democratic system isn't an end in itself: Indian democracy is mired with a governance culture devoid of any sense of accountability, built around political inequalities and social servitude, driven exclusively by a distant political class. And, contrary to the fashionable theories of middle classes being the vanguard of democracy, Indian middle classes are very much complicit in creating this democratic deficit. They have made a convenient bargain with the political classes - they can continue leading their consumption centric life without regard to the 'politics'.

The Indian general elections due next year is widely perceived to be a watershed one, but it is not significant for the reasons one would expect, or hope. It is not the battle between Modi and Rahul, secularism versus fundamentalism, investment-driven versus inclusive growth debates that make this election special: Rather, it is the question of viability of the Indian state, credibility of its whole polity, that hangs in balance. Indeed, the media brouhaha may all be about Modi and his record, or Rahul and his lineage, the validity of shining Gujrat claims, and the weighty issues such as corruption, stagnation and loss of hope: But the elephant in the room is a silent cynicism that things won't change in India. In fact, the desperation is evident in the hope of redemption itself: A man with Modi's track record won't be considered fit as a leader except in a society completely cynical about itself.

A number of educated, middle class voters in India will argue that they would prefer 'decisiveness' than 'democracy': Invoking Benjamin Franklin's dictum about liberty and security trade off has little effect on their thinking. This rhetoric isn't about one candidate over the other, but a complete reversal of the democratic ideal, and with that, the idea of Indian state. True, there is an underlying claim that there is a timeless India, and the modern creation does not matter very much, and therefore, tearing down the modern conception of the state will only return everyone to that idyllic land of milk and honey. But, indeed, that's the typical nationalist mythology, arrived in India about hundred years too late: The conception of the timeless state is ironically modern and European, and the fact that such a state will emerge only once we have dismantled the secular and democratic edifice is pure mythology. This is a fine example how the political ideals degenerate, in the space only a few generations, how rights can be taken for granted through a collective amnesia and how, in the absence of struggles, political responsibility is quickly forgotten. 

This loss of political self is, then, the biggest issue in the next election. Indeed, one can be optimistic about turning around at the precipice: However, there are far too many examples of chaos and degeneration than the rise of self-conscious and political obligation on its own. This is indeed a great opportunity to re-imagine, to unite, to work together and to restart India's democratic experience, but this will require stepping out of our own individual cocoons of consumption and getting our hands dirty. Countries have done that before, surely, but only after Civil Wars and Revolutions have torn down the fabric of the old society. Such a moment is fast arriving in India, and the hope that we will learn from history and act pre-emptively looks increasingly remote.


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