Is democracy a hit with humans because it mirrors our myopia?
While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don't mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.
So, is there life after democracy?
Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: '
Whether democracy should be the utopia that all 'developing' societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn't meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It's meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy-too much representation, too little democracy-needs some structural adjustment.
The question here, really, is: what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?
What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly-our nearsightedness? Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.
It would be conceit to pretend that the essays in this book provide answers to any of these questions. They only demonstrate, in some detail, the fact that it looks as though the beacon could be failing and that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.All the essays were written as urgent public interventions at critical moments in India-during the state-backed genocide of Muslims in Gujarat; just before the date set for the hanging of Mohammed Afzal, the accused in the December 13, 2001, Parliament attack; during US President George Bush's visit to India; during the mass uprising in Kashmir in the summer of 2008; after the November 26, 2008, Mumbai attacks. Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses.
Though many of them were written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something, the essays do have a common thread. They're not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the democratic process. They're about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy; they're about the fire in the ducts. I should also say that they do not provide a panoramic overview. They're a detailed underview of specific events that I hoped would reveal some of the ways in which democracy is practised in the world's largest democracy. (Or the world's largest 'demon-crazy', as a Kashmiri protester on the streets of
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahminical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, 'apply-through-proper-channels' nature of governance and subjugation in
'Listening to Grasshoppers', the essay from which this collection draws its title, was a lecture I gave in Istanbul in January 2008 on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was shot down on the street outside his office for daring to raise a subject that is forbidden in Turkey-the 1915 genocide of Armenians in which more than one million people were killed.My lecture was about the history of genocide and genocide denial, and the old, almost organic relationship between 'progress' and genocide.
I have always been struck by the fact that the political party in
Though these essays were written between 2002 and 2008, the invisible marker, the starting gun, is the year 1989, when in the rugged mountains of
The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely. Millions of people who lived in remote villages and deep in the heart of untouched forests, some of whom had never heard of
Today, words like 'progress' and 'development' have become interchangeable with economic 'reforms', 'deregulation' and 'privatisation'. 'Freedom' has come to mean 'choice'. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. 'Market' no longer means a place where you go to buy provisions. The 'market' is a de-territorialised space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling 'futures'. 'Justice' has come to mean 'human rights' (and of those, as they say, 'a few will do'). This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalise their detractors, deprive them of a language in which to voice their critique and dismiss them as being 'anti-progress', 'anti-development', 'anti-reform' and of course 'anti-national'-negativists of the worst sort. Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, 'Don't you believe in Progress?' To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs and whose homes are being bulldozed they say, 'Do you have an alternative development model?' To those who believe that a government is duty-bound to provide people with basic education, healthcare and social security, they say, 'You're against the Market.' And who except a cretin could be against a Market?
To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when free speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.
Two decades of this kind of 'Progress' in
The battle for land lies at the heart of the 'development' debate. Before he became
Already forests, mountains and water systems are being ravaged by marauding multinational corporations, backed by a State that has lost its moorings and is committing what can only be called 'ecocide'. In eastern
Based on the absurd notion that a river flowing into the sea is a waste of water, the Supreme Court, in an act of unbelievable hubris, has arbitrarily ordered that
The regime of free market economic policies, administered by people who are blissfully ignorant of the fate of civilisations that grew too dependent on artificial irrigation, has led to a worrying shift in cropping patterns.Sustainable food crops, suitable to local soil conditions and micro-climates, have been replaced by water-guzzling, hybrid and genetically modified 'cash' crops which, apart from being wholly dependent on the market, are also heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, canal irrigation and the indiscriminate mining of ground water. As abused farmland, saturated with chemicals, gradually becomes exhausted and infertile, agricultural input costs rise, ensnaring small farmers in a debt trap. Over the last few years, more than 1,80,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. While state granaries are bursting with food that eventually rots, starvation and malnutrition approaching the same levels as in sub-Saharan
It's as though an ancient society, decaying under the weight of feudalism and caste, was churned in a great machine. The churning has ripped through the mesh of old inequalities, recalibrating some of them but reinforcing most. Now the old society has curdled and separated into a thin layer of thick cream-and a lot of water. The cream is
Or so they think, the men in suits. They didn't bargain for the violent civil war that has broken out in
Coming back to 1989. As if to illustrate the connection between 'Union' and 'Progress', at exactly the same time that the Congress government was opening up
It's not a coincidence that the rise of Hindutva corresponded with the historical moment when
By 1998, when the BJP took office, the 'Progress' project of privatisation and liberalisation was about eight years old. Though it had campaigned vigorously against the economic reforms, saying they were a process of 'looting through liberalisation', once it came to power the BJP embraced the free market enthusiastically and threw its weight behind huge corporations like Enron.(In representative democracies, once they're elected, the people's representatives are free to break their promises and change their minds.)
Within weeks of taking office, the BJP conducted a series of thermonuclear tests. Though
In February 2002, following the burning of a train coach in which 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned alive, the BJP government in Gujarat, led by chief minister Narendra Modi, presided over a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state. The Islamophobia generated all over the world by the September 11, 2001, attacks put the wind in their sails. The machinery of the state of
After the carnage, Modi pressed for early elections. He was returned to power with a mandate from the people of
In January 2009 that relationship was sealed with a kiss at a public function. The CEOs of two of India's biggest corporations, Ratan Tata (of the Tata Group) and Mukesh Ambani (of Reliance Industries), while accepting the Gujarat Garima (Pride of Gujarat) award, celebrated the development policies of Modi, architect of the Gujarat genocide, and warmly endorsed him as a future candidate for prime minister.
As this book goes to press, the nearly two-billion-dollar 2009 general election has just been concluded. That's a lot more than the budget of the
The Congress and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have won a comfortable majority. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent of the independent candidates who stood for elections lost. Clearly, without sponsorship it's hard to win an election.And independent candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes, those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced to.
When you take a closer look at the calculus that underlies election results, words like 'comfortable' and 'majority' turn out to be deceptive, if not outright inaccurate. For instance, the actual share of votes polled by the UPA in these elections works out to only 10.3 per cent of the country's population! It's interesting how the cleverly layered mathematics of electoral democracy can turn a tiny minority into a thumping mandate. Anyway, be that as it may, the point is that it will not be L.K. Advani, hate-monger incarnate, but secular Dr Manmohan Singh, gentle architect of the market reforms, a man who has never won an election in his life, who will be prime minister of the world's largest democracy for a second term.
In the run-up to the polls, there was absolute consensus across party lines about the economic 'reforms'. Govindacharya, formerly the chief ideologue of the BJP, progenitor of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, sarcastically suggested that the Congress and BJP form a coalition. In some states they already have. In Chhattisgarh, for example, the BJP runs the government and Congress politicians run the Salwa Judum, a vicious government-backed 'people's militia'. The Judum and the government have formed a joint front against the Maoists in the forests who are engaged in a deadly and often brutal armed struggle against displacement and against land acquisition by corporations waiting to set up steel factories and to begin mining iron ore, tin and all the other wealth stashed below the forest floor. So, in Chhattisgarh, we have the remarkable spectacle of the two biggest political parties of
It is significant that
Things do not augur well for the forest-dwelling people of Chhattisgarh.
Reassured by the sort of 'constructive' collaboration, the consensus between political parties, few were more enthusiastic about the recent general elections than some major corporate houses. They seem to have realised that a democratic mandate can legitimise their pillaging in a way that nothing else can. Several corporations ran extravagant advertising campaigns on TV, some featuring Bollywood film stars urging people, young and old, rich and poor, to go out and vote. Shops and restaurants in Khan Market,
The BBC commissioned a coach on a train-the India Election Special-that took journalists from all over the world on a sightseeing tour to witness the miracle of Indian elections. The train coach had a slogan painted on it: 'Will India's voters revive the World's Fortunes?' BBC (Hindi) had a poster up in a cafe near my home. It featured a hundred dollar bill (with Ben Franklin) morphing into a 500 rupee note (with Gandhi). It said: 'Kya
What does the victory of the UPA mean in this election? Obviously a myriad things. The debate is wide open. Interpreting an Indian election is about as exact a science as sorcery. Voting patterns are intricately connected with local issues and caste and community equations that vary, quite literally, from polling booth to polling booth. There can be no reliable Big Conclusion. But here's something to think about.
In its time in office, in order to mitigate the devastation caused by its economic policies, the former Congress regime passed three progressive (critics call them populist and controversial) parliamentary acts. The Forest Rights Act (which gave forest-dwellers legal right to land and the traditional use of forest produce), the Right to Information Act and, most important of all, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The NREGA guarantees every rural family a hundred days of work (hard, manual labour) a year at minimum wages. It amounts to an average of Rs 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough for a good meal in a restaurant, including wine and dessert. Imagine how hellish times must be for even that tiny amount of money to come as a relief to millions of people who are reeling under the impact of the precipitous loss of their lands and their livelihoods. (Talk about crumbs from the high table. But then, which one of us has the heart, or the right, to argue that no crumbs are better than crumbs? Or, indeed, that no elections are better than meaningless elections?) Implementing the NREGA, seeing that the crumbs actually reach the people they're meant for, has occupied all the time and energy of some of
Ironically, the NREGA only made it through Parliament because of pressure brought to bear on the UPA government by the Left Front and, it must be said, by Sonia Gandhi. It was passed despite tremendous resistance from the mandarins of the free market within the Congress party. The corporate media was more or less unanimously hostile to the Act. Needless to say, come election-time and the NREGA became one of the main planks of the Congress party's election campaign. There's little doubt that the goodwill it generated amongst the very poor translated into votes for the Congress.But now that the elections are over, victory is being attributed to the very policies that the NREGA was passed to mitigate! The Captains of Industry have lost no time in claiming the 'People's Mandate' as their own. 'It's fast forward for markets', the business papers crowed the morning after, 'Vote [was] for reforms, says India Inc'.
There is an even greater irony: the Left Front, acting with the duplicity that has become second nature to all parliamentary political parties, took a sharp turn to the right. Even while it criticised the government's economic policies at the Centre, it tried to enforce similar ones on its home turf in
The irony doesn't end there. In a fiendishly clever sleight of hand, the defeat of the Left is being attributed to its obstructionism and anti-development policies! 'Corporate captains feel easy without Left', the papers said. The stockmarket surged, looking forward to 'a summer of joy'. CEOs on TV channels celebrated the new government's 'liberation' from the Left. Hectoring news anchors have announced that the UPA no longer has any excuse to prevaricate on implementing reforms, unless of course it has 'closet socialists' hiding in its midst.
This is the wonderful thing about democracy. It can mean anything you want it to mean.
The absence of a genuinely left-wing party in mainstream politics is not something to celebrate. But the parliamentary Left has only itself to blame for its humiliation. It's not a tragedy that it has been cut to size. Perhaps this will create the space for some truly progressive politics.
For the sake of argument, let's for a moment contemplate the absurd and accept that India Inc and the Captains of Industry are right and that
What good will forest rights be when there are no forests? What good will the Right to Information do if there is no redress for our grievances? What good are rivers without water? What good are plains without mountains to water and sustain them? It's as though we're hurtling down a cliff in a bus without brakes and fighting over what songs to sing.
'Jai Ho!' perhaps?
For better or for worse, the 2009 elections seem to have ensured that the 'Progress' project is up and running. However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the 'Union' project has fallen by the wayside.
As the 2009 election campaign unrolled, two things got saturation coverage in the media.One was the 1,00,000 rupee (two thousand dollar) 'people's car', the Tata Nano-the wagon for the volks-rolling out of Modi's
Varun is a modern politician, working the democratic system, doing everything he can to create a majority and consolidate his votebank. A politician needs a votebank, like a corporation needs a mass market. Both need help from the mass media. Corporations buy that help. Politicians must earn it. Some earn it by dint of hard work, others with dangerous circus stunts. Varun's hate speech bought him national headlines. His brief stint in prison (for violating the Election Commission's code of conduct), cut short by a court order, made him an instant martyr. He was gently chastised for his impetuousness by his party elders (on TV, for public consumption). But then, in order to export his coarse appeal, he, like Narendra Modi, was flown around in a chopper as a star campaigner for the BJP in other constituencies.
Varun Gandhi won his election with a colossal margin. It makes you wonder-are 'the people' always right? It is worrying to think what lessons the BJP will draw from its few decisive victories and its many decisive losses in this election. In several of the constituencies where it has won, hate speech (and deed) served it well. It still remains by far the second largest political party, with a powerful national presence, the only real challenge to the Congress. It will certainly live to fight another day. The question is, will it turn the burners up or down?
This said, it would be a travesty to lay all the blame for divisive politics at the door of the BJP. Whether it's nuclear tests, the unsealing of the locks of the Babri Masjid, the culture of creating fissures and pitting castes and communities against each other, or passing retrograde laws, the Congress got there first and has never been shy of keeping the ball in play. In the past, both parties have used massacres to gain political mileage. Sometimes they feast off them obliquely, sometimes they accuse each other of committing mass murder. In this election, both the Congress and the BJP brazenly fielded candidates believed to be involved in public lynching and mass murder. At no point has either seen to it that the guilty are punished or that justice is delivered. Despite their vicious public exchange of accusations, so far they have colluded to protect one another from real consequences.
Eventually the massacres get absorbed into the labyrinth of
As will be obvious from the essays in this book, the hoary institutions of Indian democracy-the judiciary, the police, the 'free' press and, of course, elections-far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite.They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.
Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of
The war in the
How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in
In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, non-violent uprising. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen-who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people-and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of 'azadi! azadi!' ('freedom! freedom!'). Fruit-sellers weighed fruit chanting, 'azadi! azadi!' Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet-sellers-everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted 'azadi! azadi!' The protests went on for several days.
The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were non-violent. For the first time in decades, fissures appeared in mainstream public opinion in
Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did something extraordinary-it announced elections in the state. Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were re-arrested. Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades and embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy.No chances were taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on, was put under house arrest in
Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so that the first districts to vote were the most militarised even within the
No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls. Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to delink 'azadi' and the
The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for
But only weeks after the elections it was back to business as usual. The protests and demands for azadi and the summary killings by security forces have begun again. Newspapers report that militancy is on the rise. Unsurprisingly, the poor turnout in the subsequent general elections did not elicit much comment.
It's enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy.
The trouble is that
In the midst of all this, Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem unfolding in
There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there, along with
However, Demon-crazy can't fool all the people all the time.
Perhaps the story of the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the cold-from frostbite and sunburn. The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war, thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice-axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly. While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They're good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like
While I read 'Listening to Grasshoppers' to a tense audience packed into a university auditorium in Istanbul (tense because words like unity, progress, genocide and Armenian tend to anger the Turkish authorities when they are uttered close together), I could see Rakel Dink, Hrant Dink's widow, sitting in the front row, crying the whole way through. When I finished, she hugged me and said, "We keep hoping. Why do we keep hoping?"
We, she said. Not you.
The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung so hauntingly by Abida Parveen, came to me:
Nahin nigah main manzil to justaju hi sahi, Nahin wisaal mayassar to arzu hi sahi
I tried to translate them for her (sort of):
If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place, If reunion is impossible, then longing must take its place.
You see what I meant about poetry?