2020: The people vs the Indian State
Three events defined India’s political landscape in 2020. The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the migrant labour crisis that unfolded as workers defied lockdown orders and asserted their rights, choosing to walk home in the face of adversity, and agitating farmers knocking on Delhi’s doorstep. Voters continue to invest their faith in the ruling dispensation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is unshaken, and India’s political opposition remains moribund. Yet these protests and assertion of rights represent a critical juncture in our politics. Democracy is defined as much by elections as it is by social processes that moderate State power. This is the power of protests and their centrality in India’s current political moment. As we look back at 2020, it is worth reflecting on the possibilities and limitations of our politics, expressed through these critical events.
The year 2020 dawned with protests against CAA. Secularism’s last sigh, CAA protesters raised a brief glimmer of hope for a new politics. A politics that could free us from the opportunistic secularism of the past and the Hindutva juggernaut of the present by upholding constitutional values and redefining secularism. But the protests were also an expression of deep anxiety among India’s Muslims, increasingly alienated by a politics that uses the State machinery to strengthen its ideological project and normalise prejudice. These anxieties are a reminder of why the grammar of secularism is so central to India’s post-colonial project of nation-building. The ethos of secularism is a necessary antidote to communalisation and politicisation of religion, and the violence that these can unleash.
It is a measure of just how deep the politics of prejudice has penetrated the Indian State that within weeks the CAA protests became an instrument in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to deepen communal polarisation. Politicians and mobs could chant “goli maro…..” with visible State sanction, while the political opposition, caught in its own cynical opportunism, afraid of alienating the Hindu vote, watched in quiet acquiescence.
The pandemic enabled the State to crush protests, use its coercive powers to intimidate citizens and deepen prejudice with “love jihad” laws. In the aftermath of the protests, CAA and National Register of Citizens have receded to the background, but the political project has emerged stronger. Politics around the protests exposed the extent to which mainstream party politics is being shaped by the Hindutva consensus and how deep Muslim anxieties now run. This anxiety is giving way to new forms of political expression, illustrated in the success of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in the Bihar elections. The quest for a secular political ethos will likely turn on whether these new sites of electoral competition will pry open an alternative politics or deepen exclusionary politics. This is the question that will shape India’s democratic future in 2021 and beyond.
Once the pandemic hit, elites across the political divide coalesced around the global pursuit of flattening the curve through lockdowns. Fear of the virus overrode any consideration of the disastrous consequences of a freeze in economic activity, particularly on informal workers. The prime minister called for India to gather in solidarity as the nation went to war against Covid-19. India’s elite and middle classes responded with enthusiasm, banging thalis and lighting lamps in support of “corona warriors”. But a far larger hitherto invisible group of citizens rose in defiance. Stripped of their livelihood, India’s workers refused to be locked down. They wanted to make their way home. And when the State blocked transport, they walked. This was not an act of desperation. It was an act of power. An assertion of rights and dignity against a State that routinely abandoned them. Nine months later, the ravages of the lockdown have failed to translate into a political demand for deepening the welfare State, for redistribution or even a modicum of economic relief through cash transfers and expanded social protection. Instead the economic damage caused has been leveraged to introduce labour reforms and in some states, an attempt to dismantle all forms of labour protection in the name of attracting capital. A politics that is based on rights and the promise of equal citizenship remains a distant dream even as India aspires to the increasingly distant goal of becoming a $5-trillion economy.
There is one silver lining. Despite the resurgence of lockdowns in parts of Europe and the United States, after the horrors of April and May, India has, thus far, resisted succumbing to large-scale lockdowns even when cases surge. Implicit in this resistance is a powerful truth about democracy. Even the most invisible voices can make themselves heard and delegitimise the use of brute State power.
As 2020 comes to a close, agitating farmers have occupied highways, converting them into new sites of protest. Much has been written about the agriculture laws, the processes through which they were legislated and their economic merits and de-merits. But the debate has yet to acknowledge the underlying political economy that is driving these protests: The failure to build a credible consensus on pathways for achieving India’s much-belated agrarian transition. This is not a debate that can be had in binaries of free markets vs State control nor can these protests be explained by elite capture seeking to retain the status quo, although it is easy to interpret the protests, as many supporters of the agriculture laws have done, through this lens.
These protests draw their legitimacy from the lived experience of fractured growth driven by oligarchic capitalism and a discredited State. The frequent invocation of some of these people in these protests is not because the farmers’ protests have been captured by the Left, but rather because India’s path to capitalism is yet to demonstrate its ability to create genuinely free markets and a politics that enables widespread prosperity. Farmer fears and anxieties of losing bargaining power when confronted with big business and a compromised State are far more genuine than most of us would like to admit. Our debates on economic reforms and the politics that shapes them must confront this reality.
Bringing India on to a sustainable path of long-term growth and charting a new course for agrarian transitions will require a politics of trust, credibility, inclusion and consensus building. The government may still brazen it out, but the policy agenda and credibility is considerably weakened. A divisive, polarising rhetoric, populist leadership and coercion can help propel parties to power, even in functioning democracies. But the everyday practice of democracy remains a powerful corrective.
This is the real lesson that the BJP ought to learn from India’s agitating farmers and protesting citizens. Rather than discredit the protesters, the BJP will do well to recognise the democratic lessons they offer. As 2020 closes, India’s future hangs in balance.
(Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)