Curated by Prof. Rahul Mukherji

Fallacies About Indian Democracy: Majoritarianism & Tradition

The political crisis in India today is a time to revisit the idea of India. Will India become a Hindu nationalist state? Or, will it draw from an Indian tradition and work towards co-existence and mutual learnings from diverse religious and spiritual traditions.

Prof. Rahul Mukherji | August 29, 2020

Fallacies about Indian Democracy: Majoritarianism and Tradition

  Picture Courtesy: The New Yorker

Dear Readers,

It gives me great pleasure to introduce a section titled: Reimagining Politics. This section published by newsplatform will carry short opinion pieces on the sustenance of democratic politics that serves the citizens of South Asia. We will debate issues ranging from the South Asian cultural traditions to challenges facing democracy and development.

The first set of four opinions are largely focussed on Indian Politics and Governance. Rahul Mukherji argues that we need to critically revisit the issue of majoritarianism in Indian democratic practice. Is a decisive majority vital for governance? Has the progressive and cosmopolitan Indian intellectual tradition not ignored the cosmopolitan South Asian tradition to some extent in its pursuit of secularism?

The piece by Suhas Palshikar holds that Indian political parties both in the 2014 and 2019 elections underestimated the erosion of democratic values and institutions resulting from the hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party ((BJP). It offers some possibilities out of this quagmire.

The piece by Deb Mukharji stresses the longer run erosion of constitutional values, especially – Justice, Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. There is the need to uphold these principles. India also needs to feel less threatened and be more sensitive towards its neighbours.

Finally, we publish Prashant Bhushan’s reply to the judges of the Supreme Court regarding why he chooses not to apologise. This, after all, is a matter of upholding a fundamental right to express oneself.

We hope that this series will generate a lively debate and contribute towards a politics that India’s founding fathers had pledged – something that has brought India a long distance since Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous Tryst with Destiny speech.

Prof. Rahul Mukherji
Professor and Head, Department of Political Science,
South Asia Institute, Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies
Heidelberg University, 27 August 2020

Why do we witness the surge of majoritarianism in Indian politics with the propensity to threaten the very foundations of Indian democracy – the freedom of expression, the right to live one’s life according to one’s religious calling, and the right to fair economic competition within a democratic framework? Off the many reasons that can be proffered for such a majoritarian backsliding of democracy, two facets need to be highlighted. The first is the misplaced view that a powerful leader with a secure majority will not only provide good governance but also secure democratic rights. The second misconception is rooted in the inability of intellectuals to appreciate that culture and ideas matter. The battle for votes and political dominance is not just about caste or class based political power, it is also about the governance ideas that will be backed by political power.

The Fallacy of Majoritarianism

Majorities can build as well as diminish institutions. The point about swiftly diminishing rights of Indian citizens under a secure majoritarian regime hardly requires any elaboration. The Supreme Court’s verdict against Prashant Bhushan for the tweets pointing to the irresponsible way in which the Chief Justice of India was seated atop an expensive motor bike owned by a legislator’s son, and critical comments about the appointment of judges provoked a swift suo moto notice of the Supreme Court. Bhushan’s reply giving examples of sitting and retired justices of the Court who had expressed a similar view was deemed of no consequence. Prashant Bhushan – well-known as a crusader against corruption and votary for the common man – a thorn for any government in power – may now face punishment.

The Supreme Court was effectively able to check the excesses of the United Progressive Alliance between 2004 and 2014. In 2020, however, the Court could ignore the plight of migrant labor under the COVID 19 lock-down, as well as, the rights of the Indian citizens in Kashmir. The Court, reputed to be a powerful bastion of democracy, could be turning into an extension of a majoritarian executive.

Electoral majorities can be debilitating for independent regulators such as the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, if the ruling dispensation does not support an independent institution capable of regulating governance? This is exactly how China operates, where majorities are assured within single party rule and there is very little differentiation between the party, bureaucracy and the judiciary.

This is not the first time in India’s history that the country has witnessed such a majoritarian phenomenon. In many ways the current situation resembles the National Emergency (1975-1977) when Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) gave the clarion call for total revolution leading to the first peaceful transfer of power in independent India. This event demonstrated that the Congress Party, unlike the People’s Action Party of Singapore, could be dislodged. Decades of democratic practise under the one party rule at the central level had not been in vain. The argumentative Indian triumphed at a time when the ruling dispensation went for election. Prime Minister Modi was a political activist when Morarji Desai assumed Prime Ministership. True to his Gandhian style, Desai proclaimed that the government will not seek revenge. It would only uphold the law against those who have violated it. There was even respect for the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at that time, even though the leading JNU intellectuals were inspired more by Marx than by Gandhi, JP or Lohia.

It is in this context, that it must be acknowledged that public intellectuals and scholars have been unduly harsh regarding governance possibilities available under coalition politics. Scholars and public intellectuals ranging from Pratap Bhanu Mehta to Ashutosh Varshney had articulated why it would be beneficial for India to have a decisive leader in Narendra Modi. One forgets easily that coalition governments launched both India’s project of promoting global economic interdependence, as well as, social democracy. India’s rapid entrepreneurship-driven economic growth earned it a place in council tables of the world; and, the rights-based approach to development, was a response to the necessary but inegalitarian growth process. It would have been impossible to launch the rights-based approach in the absence of robust economic growth. At Rupees approximately 40,000 crores in 2009, expenditure on the right to work was mere 1% of the GDP of one of the most rapidly growing economies in the world at that time.

Ideas and Culture Matter

Second, social, political and economic ideas matter for governance! If citizens such as Harsh Mander and Prashant Bhushan among many other distinguished defenders of human rights are attacked by the state, citizens could even consider imprisonment the duty of a citizen loyal to the constitution. This would be reminiscent of the times when Gandhi, Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Bose aroused the nation out of slumber just by exposing the violence of a colonial dispensation. That colonial power had also sought to divide the Indian nation on the basis of religion and caste.

It is against the colonial project that the defenders of the Indian nation led by Mohandas Gandhi argued that India is a different kind of nation – whose basis is the celebration of diversity within a civilizational frame. India is not like Britain, France of Germany – defined by a language or a religion.

So, what is the Indian nation about? It is a nation where Kabir became a disciple of Ramanandacharya in the fifteenth century and took the name of Ram. For Kabir, there was no difference between Ram and Rahim, neither was there a contradiction between a personal god and the omniscient presence. Dara Shukoh – the crown prince slated to be the Mughal emperor of India had argued persuasively about the confluence of Sufi and Vedantic mystical traditions. Centuries later in the 19th century, Sri Ramakrishna the guru of Swami Vivekananda lived the life of a yogi according to devotional, Vedantic and Tantric disciplines. He even practiced Islam and Christianity. After a life of thorough spiritual experimentation, Sri Ramakrishna reminded us of the old Vedic dictum – “as many are the paths, so many are the ways”. It is not surprising therefore that Swami Vivekananda – the patron saint of the Indian youth – a transformational spiritual philosopher who influenced Gandhi, Nehru, Bose and Aurobindo, among many other makers of modern India, preached unto the world – the catholicity of all religions at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, at a time when such ideas had very little traction. In the 20th century, Ambedkar revolted against orthodox Hinduism by drawing from another rebel tradition in Indian religion and spirituality – Buddhism. The possibilities within the Indian tradition are manifold.

Economic ideas matter too. I have argued in Globalization and Deregulation that India could not have adopted private sector oriented globalization in 1966 because the imperative of self-sufficiency was dominant at that time. India resisted pressure from United States and the World Bank – only to steer the economy away from globalization. In 1991, however, as Finance Minister Manmohan Singh famously proclaimed – the time for a new idea had arrived. India opened its economy after years of experimentation in the 1980s, because the weight of ideas within the state had moved towards embracing entrepreneurship and globalization. Contrary to conventional wisdom, India did not reform its economy owing to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Rather it used the crisis to deal with powerful business lobbies who had opposed reform. And, it deviated substantially from IMF advice on reducing welfare spending.

Where may we be headed?

The political crisis in India today is a time to revisit the idea of India. Will India become a Hindu nationalist state? Or, will it draw from an Indian tradition and work towards co-existence and mutual learnings from diverse religious and spiritual traditions to demonstrate to the world that Gandhi and Vivekananda were, after all, right. India is a deeply religious and spiritual civilization that has lived its life by trying to respect the catholicity of all faiths. The Syrian Christians of Kerala predate the Roman Catholic Church, and Parsis succeeded in India rather than in Iran. Deoband and Bareli are in India and not in Pakistan. This civilizational life of living with respect for all faiths and numerous dogmas, however imperfect, is quite remarkable in the annals of history.

India also needs to resolve whether it will embrace regulated entrepreneurship and globalization in the service of the downtrodden, or live with crony capitalism leading to such oppressive regulation of capital and labor that it may well fulfil Marx’s prophecy. Regulated capitalism in the service of entrepreneurship rather than rent-seeking can serve social democracy, which was Gandhiji’s talisman. Ultimately, the state needs to serve poorest in order for India to liberate itself from its shackles.

Prof. Rahul Mukherji is Head of the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University, Germany.


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