Terms of Trade | Indian democracy’s epitaph writers and fairy tale weavers have lost, for now - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Indian democracy’s epitaph writers and fairy tale weavers have lost, for now

Jun 06, 2024 06:00 PM IST

Ask the BJP and it will tell you that all of Hindutva and anti-Muslim speeches were not enough to harvest a majority in the Lok Sabha nor a win in Ayodhya

There were many commentators, who until the results fructified on June 4, had written lengthy epitaphs of Indian democracy. The blame was ascribed to a multitude of factors, but primarily some sort of genetic mutation of north India which had converted voters into majoritarian bigots.

Democracy, for the masses, is neither a hedge fund to be traded promiscuously, nor an endowment fund which can be used to make fortunes forever. (AFP)
Democracy, for the masses, is neither a hedge fund to be traded promiscuously, nor an endowment fund which can be used to make fortunes forever. (AFP)

A complete consolidation of so-called independent institutions of capital and state behind the Modi government was abetting this murder. Now they see a democratic revival suddenly. This is despite the fact that the BJP’s popular support if one were to look at it in terms of national vote share, is virtually unchanged between 2019 and 2024.

The attitude of this lot, before and after the results, is best described by using the analogy of how a shrewd investor deals with falling and rising stocks in his portfolio. They are to be junked and embraced without even blinking.

There was another cohort, almost diametrically opposite to the group described above, which liked to believe that Indian democracy, from 2014 onwards, had bloomed into some sort of a metaphysical bonhomie between the ruler and the ruled in India.

In this narrative, the former was using this relationship to push policies which were against the material interests of a very large share of voters but to the benefit; at least in the short-term, of a small set of people who get to define what national interest is. The only thing needed to pull this magic was the state-sponsored transfer of some first-generation assets and bare minimum survival benefits to the hundreds of millions of poor voters along with some (nuisance value) schadenfreude in the realm of the social.

For this echo chamber, the 2024 results are comparable to having lost, fully, or in part, access to a huge endowment fund which was always supposed to stay.

An overwhelming share of the 600 million plus voters who voted in the 2024 elections knew better than to believe in either of these self-righteous and self-serving narratives.

Democracy, for the masses, is neither a hedge fund to be traded promiscuously, nor an endowment fund which can be used to make fortunes forever. Democracy, for them, is an ongoing dialectic, where current outcomes are shaped by lessons of past experiences and credibility (or lack of it) of present-day alternatives.

These decisions can be made with an extremely risk-averse attitude or a huge leap of faith depending on how high the stakes are in the current status quo, no matter how good or bad it is.

Ask most of the Muslims in West Bengal and a significant number of Hindus in Kerala, and they will tell you why they stayed with the TMC in the former and junked the CPI(M) and the Congress to support a actor, who was the BJP candidate in Thrissur the latter.

The masses, who have to struggle every day to make ends meet, do not have the luxury of living by waxing eloquently on the perceived silver bullets that ideological social-political narratives or class-agnostic reforms are. They also see, very clearly, the contradictions between what these narratives talk about and how they actually manifest themselves in political and economic praxis on the ground.

They know the fly-by-the-night operators from the organically linked politician who is waging struggles against the status quo and they know when the same politician changes from one kind to another. They believe that they and their peers who do not even have basic economic security despite never-ending drudgery in the name of work deserve better. They know that the government cannot solve all their economic problems. But they expect it to pitch in when things get difficult. And they are upset when it pulls the ground from beneath their feet and talks down to them after doing it.

Perhaps, this is where Narendra Modi, the master politician, got it wrong this time when he agreed with the fiscal hawks within his economic policy establishment and did not announce any economic palliatives in the 2024 interim budget.

In 2019, the losses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh had made him junk such advice to his own benefit. Maybe, he too, had started believing in the magical bonhomie story that the second echo chamber claimed was India’s defining feature under his leadership. To say this is not to make a compulsive ideological case against fiscal prudence. It is just stating the obvious that those who gain from such policies are a hopeless minority in India when it comes to the pool of voters.

Sure, one can argue that the gains of such fiscal prudence will accrue in the long term. But as Keynes famously said, we are all dead in the long term. And a government must do all it can to resurrect and rejuvenate itself every five years. In this case, the government has not died, but it is significantly weaker than what it used to be.

Material precarities notwithstanding, economic palliatives are not the be-all and end-all of political choices in India. Ask Arvind Kejriwal, Jagan Mohan Reddy and Naveen Patnaik, and they will tell you. The poor are grateful for the benefits they receive from the state. But this gratitude is not to be confused with a carte blanche for ideological somersaults.

All these parties have tried to play clever by half by refusing to take on the BJP on issues of core Hindutva. The people seem to have come to the conclusion that they might as well vote for the original circus rather than its imitation. The economic benefits most likely will continue in any case.

Now, one can call the people names such as bigots or communal for supporting such an ideology. But you do not get to choose your electorate in a democracy and must work with what you have. And 2024 has taught us more than any other election that people endorsing even a divisive ideology one or two times is not the end of the road.

The average Indian voter, we have been shown, does not harbour just one identity, no matter how hard the ideological commissars of all kinds try to convince us about it.

Ask the BJP and it will tell you that all of the Hindutva and anti-Muslim speeches during the campaign were not enough to harvest; forget a majority in the Lok Sabha, it was not even enough to win the parliamentary seat of Ayodhya in these elections. The latter is where the BJP supposedly delivered a cultural renaissance which was in waiting for half a millennium.

The RJD should perhaps ask the SP why the fortunes of Mandal politics varied very differently in the neighbouring states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh even though the share of OBCs is the same in the two states. But had the former been wise enough, it would have looked at its comrade-in-flux Nitish Kumar to learn the right answers. The SP did exactly that and put up a more socially representative candidature, unlike the RJD.

Ask the people of Manipur and they will tell you that the Christians and Hindus – the so-called liberal vanguards who kept telling us that they were fighting a religious conflict – have voted for the Congress in what is now a completely tattered society defying not just expectations but even gun-wielding mercenaries who had the blessing of the BJP government there.

We need to ask the people in Chandigarh and Faridkot in Punjab, just about 200 kilometres away from each other, why they have elected an MP whose father was killed by Khalistani terrorists in the former and another one whose father killed Indira Gandhi in the latter.

Amra Ram, one of the tallest communist leaders of the peasantry today, who will now represent the CPI (M) in Lok Sabha from Sikar in Rajasthan, will be asking himself how his vote share increased from 2% in 2019 to more than 50% in 2024.

So, what exactly is Indian democracy?

Is it a sum of hundreds, perhaps thousands of competing, often conflicting theatres of local dynamics in India? Does it deserve many more volumes of 'subaltern studies' which go down the rabbit hole of discovering a million truths about us as a people, all of which have nothing to do with one another? Is it the poor getting a once-in-a-five-year chance to extort as much as they can from the state exchequer? Or, is it, a game ready to be won by the most ruthless Machiavellian operator who can handle these contradictions by deploying everything at his disposal while maintaining the façade of believing in a particular value system?

All of these assertions will be a gross injustice to India’s democratic journey of 77 years. They cannot explain why a country with so much ethnic and linguistic diversity and social and economic inequality has managed to stay together without falling into the vortex of economic or social anarchy like most of our peers in the Global South.

Sure, there have been moments when we seemed to have reached its precipice but we have managed to pull back each time. They also cannot explain why the political fortunes of parties and leaders have been almost destroyed and then given a new lease of life by the same set of people at different points in time notwithstanding the institutional barriers against such reversals.

This, more than anything else, is the biggest longue durée success story of Indian democracy. And this is something which we can genuinely be proud of. To be sure, the fact that democracy has worked so far does not mean that it is eternal. It also does not mean that the majority does not endorse politics which often has a dark side.

What it does tell us is that Indian democracy’s life and health and darkness or lack of it will depend on the actions and intentions of its present and future practitioners.

As long as their actions are informed by the dialectics of democracy rather than narratives peddled by echo chambers that want to wish this dialectic away, we will continue to be a democracy of envy in the world. This is the only lesson one can draw from the 2024 results without succumbing to either grandstanding or cynicism. And this is the lesson our masses would like the new representatives they have elected to accept this time.

Roshan Kishore, HT's Data and Political Economy Editor, writes a weekly column on the state of the country's economy and its political fall out, and vice-versa

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