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Making Sense of India's "Democratic" Choice

Sayori Ghoshal (mail2sayori@gmail.com) is a doctoral scholar at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. 

The 2014 Lok Sabha election verdict has highlighted the limitations of democracy to create an enabling environment where the voices of the minorities and the poor can be heard. The sacrosanct concept of respecting the mandate or the choice of the majority, perhaps, needs to be questioned in this context. 

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections has witnessed, during the course of campaigns, heightened emotions–strong outbursts and heated exchanges. The declaration of the election result was accompanied by both despair and jubilation. Both emotions have been caused by exactly the same event–the unanticipated landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spearheaded by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Despair and fear reign because one remembers the 2002 communal violence that marked Modi’s rule as chief minister in Gujarat  as well as the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 when the BJP was in power in Uttar Pradesh. Yet the jubilation cannot be denied. The jubilation arises from the expectation that Modi, the man India has chosen, can deliver development and good governance  A lot of statistical data questions the viability of promises made by Modi, but the majority[1] has given its verdict in his favour.

There is a need for making sense of the choice that India has made democratically, especially for those despairing at the election result. The despair, I contend, is the more intense of the two primary emotions; for this segment of population, voting for a party had less relevance than voting against one. With the coming to power of the BJP, the one party this segment had voted against, going beyond the results and critically analysing the developments becomes essential to resist the political culture that Modi and his party epitomises.

Limitations of Democracy

Despite feelings of fear and despair, my contention is that this election result has made possible a critical inroad into engaging with democracy; not with the technicalities of the democratic process, but rather with its substance and, more significantly, with its limitations. Most exchanges and expressions on social networking sites seem to suggest that, for people who felt let down by the result, “democracy has failed”. The general belief is that democracy gets seriously undermined if elections have not been conducted by fair means. And when the party one supports wins, one believes that democracy has won.

This time, however, it is most essential that people who are far from excited about India’s choice, recognise that democracy has indeed won. If ever democracy has succeeded in post-Independence India, it has been in this election. Democracy, which is significantly not about power to the people but about power to the majority, has crowned Modi as its choice. There is no failure in this.

Democracy has, however, also succeeded in defining its own limit; its limit as an ethical statement. For the majority, democracy continues to function unhindered and it continues to express, choose and live freely; but it no longer implies that the majoritarian choice is equivalent to an ethical course of action for the entire people. It is in testing this limit, interrogating and engaging with it that we can move beyond despair; we can then examine what the substance of democracy implies and whether it can per se be the ultimate determinant of our ethics.

The campaign against Modi and the BJP asked people to remember the 2002 Gujarat riots which took place under Modi’s watch and the Babri masjid demolition in 1992 in Ayodhya under BJP’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. The anti-Modi discourse also stressed that the purported Gujarat development model was just a myth and needed to be busted. Without giving up on the importance of either contention, it can be suggested that perhaps it is not a mere absence of memory, a forgetting of histories, that caused people to vote for the BJP. Perhaps, the choice was exercised in full presence of these and other such memories. For the jubilant “majority” of India, these memories played a lesser role in their decision-making. The 2014 election result then could mean either: the more common suggestion that the “majority” has forgotten history or, the far more dangerous one, that this majority remembers but has deemed these and such memories irrelevant.

The imagination of democracy as people’s voice, power and agency and the natural conclusion that it is therefore ethical for all has been challenged by the majority’s choice in this election.  A government has been elected that makes a number of minority groups (of gender, sexuality, religion, and caste as well as number of individuals beyond the scope of group identities) feel threatened and unsafe.

Such a foregrounding of democracy’s limitation becomes crucial at a time when “majority” and “morality” are evidently no longer interchangeable.[2] And yet, the reverence for the logic of democracy per se remains intact. Even among critics of the election result, democracy seems to be the sacrosanct justificatory logic that remains outside the scope of investigation and argumentation. A sensitive and concise article by actor and film maker Nandita Das also reflects the uncritical reverence that accompanies the imagination of democracy: “The election of a new government in India is the result of a democratic exercise so vast that any critique of the mandate needs to be respectful”.[3] However this respect often becomes indistinguishable from uncritical acceptance.

The lack of reverence for democracy I invoke here is to enable one to question not the outcome of this election but the assumed ultimate supremacy of the logic of democracy. Many reasons have been cited regarding the historic nature of this election (maximum turnout of voters, single party winning  an absolute majority for the first time since 1984 and so on); but most historic is perhaps the spectacular show of democracy’s limitation. The limitation lies in the majority becoming the ultimate factor in deciding everything that has implications not only for itself but for the  minorities as well. The majority’s choice is considered too sacred to be scrutinised and too representational to be considered unethical.

You Get What You Deserve!

Among the despairing voter population, one mode of justification of the unanticipated outcome is the self-flagellating logic of having received what one “deserves”. This is counterproductive, and even regressive, for the continuance of resistance to the model of governance that India has gifted itself. In the assumption of the logic of getting what one deserves, there is a certain degree of complacency and, perhaps, even fatalism. Ironically, in this context, this logic assumes that with the triumph of the majority’s choice, the resistance of the minorities is a lost cause.

The necessity in the wake of such a triumph is to keep alive the healthy skepticism, resistance, and concerns of the minorities. And to keep these alive, it becomes indispensable that one asks larger questions of democracy and ethics, where they converge and where they part ways. Finally, it becomes fundamental to understand whether today’s majority  has forgotten histories (here especially of communal violence) or whether its democratic right has been exercised despite these memories. For this majority, these memories seem insignificant and communal violence seems justified in a “secretly” male, Hindu and brahminical India. If the latter is the more accurate understanding of today’s majority, it becomes all the more necessary that we begin to understand  India’s majoritarian psyche.     



Notes

[1] Unless otherwise mentioned, in this article I have used “majority” and “minority” not to mean empirical, identity-based groups such as Hindus and Muslims respectively. Rather, majority here indicates those who voted in favour of the BJP and minority indicates those who did not. Therefore, majority could include those who based on religious or other identities belong to minority communities; and minority in this piece could well include people who belong to dominant religion/caste/gender but have resisted the rise of the BJP through their voting rights.

[2] See Javed Anand (2014): ‘Sorry, World, We Tried’, The Indian Express, 17 May, available at http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/sorry-world-we-tried/, accessed on 28 May 2014.

[3] See Nandita Das (2014): ‘Silence is Deafening: Are My Fears Unfounded?’, Outlook, 26 May, available at http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?290737, accessed on 28 May 2014.

 

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