February-March  2004 
Year 10    No.96

Cover Story

Fundamental questions to fight fundamentalist trends

Electoral fascism, as Gujarat showed us, is manipulated majoritarianism where democracy has lost its soul

BY Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey

Theoretically speaking, democracy is one of the greatest levellers. This was particularly true when it came in to replace legitimised colonialism or feudalism. With the vote, the raja becomes the praja and the praja the raja within a new and egalitarian framework. But what happens to the former ruling structures? How does the elite, who has ruled for centuries, come to terms with it? Their manipulations in the categorisation and ordering of society had given them a high degree of comfort and stability in reaping benefits at the expense of others. Democracy was supposed to change all that. But democracy is also an open invitation to "convince" people – and if that is not possible, to manipulate majorities. For groups of people with an almost hereditary practice in social manipulations, this has been remarkably quickly achieved.

As we face the Lok Sabha elections 2004, disturbing questions about our democratic practice dominate our thoughts. It is clear to us that our primary identities are narrow and divisive. Instead of the vote forcing us to think in more "catholic" terms (in these times even the use of a term like this will be probably be labelled pseudo secularism!), even we have started seeking both solutions and victories from within these narrow categories. Such manipulators are not limited to one party, but the manipulation itself has become a disease that has permeated the whole system. In the battle for votes, the whole established paradigm is one of alliances and adjustments with large blocks of votes. Obviously, for those whose ideology is contrary to narrow identities, the adjustments with this paradigm amounts to killing their very ideology to win the vote. It is not surprising that for secular forces this is gradually turning into a battle for survival.

Even more pervasive and at least as threatening as the question of division along religious lines is the mental domination of caste identities. The failure of Left and secular groups to adequately address the concerns of exploited castes has resulted in such groups seeking their own solutions. The domination of caste is so complete that today most solutions are being sought from within caste blocks and identities. We now have parties who pride themselves on adjustments and manipulations to fight exploitation! While they have undoubtedly made significant strides in eliciting temporary concessions from the controllers of the varan vyavastha [caste system], evidence shows that the control of ruling elites remains insidious, strong, alive and diabolical. No matter how much leaders of caste blocks like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav feel they have made progress in fighting upper caste interests and their exploitation of the rest. The manner in which caste divisions and subdivisions amongst the hierarchy of the exploited are being successfully used to retain control is there for all to see. Religious minorities are, of course, the ideal red herrings to be used and abused without them being even allowed any say in expressing a choice. What better illustration than the recent announcement of a half-day school holiday on Fridays in Uttar Pradesh? Despite the Left still representing a powerful alternative vision, its physical marginalisation is making it increasingly irrelevant. Talking about the ideological position of the Congress seems to be a contradiction in terms.

When one looks at the fascist threat posed by the right wing, one has to realise there is a very real threat of a new form of "electoral fascism". It is not enough to say that Hitler came in through the vote and then imposed fascist rule, but to examine the distrust and polarisation that has been successfully inducted within Gujarat. The results are even more frightening because it is manipulated majoritarianism, where democracy has lost its soul.

The capacity of the Indian Right to dominate the mental make-up of a society is not confined to elections alone. The Indian ruling classes have fairly successfully and competently absorbed most of the major challenges to their domination. Reservation was one such challenge – where, like the Prime Minister, they wear it on their sleeve, albeit reluctantly, and in their public positions manage to say one thing while they mean another! Control over formal educational institutions was another, where they have not only learnt from missionaries, but have almost stamped them out as they "sanskritise" the whole country. The biggest threat was, of course, the vote, where their newfound capacity to exploit the ideological weakness of their professed adversaries has been amply demonstrated in the recent past. Even the discerning voter has been reduced to a state of confusion by electoral alliances and adjustments so that ideological choices have been made into non-issues by the time people cast their vote. Only those who have been at the receiving end of such emotive manipulations may actually realise what is happening. They unfortunately don’t have the numbers to make enough of a difference on their own, and the alternatives are a pathetic compromise. The right wing is reaping the benefits of several decades of hard work in almost all sections of society, and no matter how ideologically appealing the secular alternative may be, there is no substitute to that level of commitment and work.

The corrosion of democratic rights began many years ago, even before Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975. For many years the period of the Emergency was seen as the sharpest and most crippling attack on democracy in India. But what was a crude and obvious rule by undemocratic means has now been replaced by a subtle and subversive use of democratic and regulatory institutions, indeed the process of democracy itself, to pervert and deny constitutional rights.

We lost all fundamental control over the rule of law when the State in Gujarat, connived in a deliberate denial of its constitutional duty to protect the life and property of its citizens. What was a sickening perversion of justice itself became converted to a platform to win the state elections! This, in turn, giving legitimacy to the State to pervert and misuse the regulatory mechanisms and the institutions of justice itself! Subtle methods like the manipulation and misuse of information, the deliberate attempts to promote and support fanatic groups within society and the use of hate speech and violence as methods have also raised deeper and more fundamental questions related to the polity and the people.

The Gujarat ‘experiment’ was more deadly than anything seen before in independent India, with grave implications for democracy itself. It is also why the coming Lok Sabha elections are important, not simply for what results they will produce – but even more importantly – for what is likely to follow.

A democracy takes time to nurture and grow. Perhaps for a country as complex and as pluralistic as India, the misuse of the democratic process has been as important a factor in locating its importance as the inability of the form of democracy we have had so far to meet the needs of the poor and those at the margins. Like most other things on this planet – environmental degradation, water and food – it is only when there are threats to their very existence that we attend to the causes with common sense and intelligence.

The present elections to the Lok Sabha are marked by a singular absence in the electoral discourse on issues of social justice, equity and equality that any democratic society should be collectively aspiring towards. We have to admit that despite significant gains in democratic practices of people outside the electoral arena, when it comes to elections, there is little or no reflection of the concerns of the large numbers of poor and marginalised people in the electoral process. Though some creative answers have emerged from peoples’ movements vis-à-vis electoral politics, we are no more than a question mark.

Till about a decade or so ago, it did not seem possible that the Indian polity would waver from the basic common minimum need to adhere to the rule of law and constitutional principles that we gave ourselves. It has ceased to even surprise or shock us that those whom we elect to rule us, those who draw power from our sovereignty have no more respect for these values than they have for the methods used to occupy positions of power.

Along with these subtler machinations (which some of us see and others wish away), is the more obvious and cruder structures of corruption. We have now before us a whole array of national and state level leaders who make us cringe at the sheer vulgarity and nonchalance with which they defy the law and the unwritten norms of ethical behaviour.

Our esteemed deputy Prime Minister has accepted that he drew inspiration for the ‘feel good’ factor from no less than a TV ad for clothing! If, as a people, we do not see the deviation from genuine governance to offering sops and glamour for non-performance, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Given this scenario, what can some of us do, some of us who have been involved and who can see beyond the superficial welling up of the middle class ‘feel goodness’ because the Indian government is lying with its misuse of statistics or because the media hype equates the winning of a cricket match to winning a war?

To begin with, we can perhaps take a few first steps.

There has been a lot of discussion amongst peoples’ movements about their lack of influence in the electoral process. There has also been some healthy and serious thought about working out an alternative politics. There seems to be a need to learn to apply the lessons learnt from years of working with peoples’ movements. If the Constitution and the rule of law have been an important support for raising issues of healthy democratic practice in matters of governance, the same expertise must be used to try and ensure healthy democratic practice during the electoral process itself.

Even as activists from peoples’ movements are thinking of entering the arena of electoral politics, concerns about corruption in the process itself must be addressed: the need to work vigorously for the enforcement of the code of conduct; to ensure that violations of ceiling on expenditures are kept low and are strictly enforced; to use the potential offered to highlight the role of criminal elements and black money through effectively examining the candidates affidavits under compulsory disclosure norms; and most importantly to ensure that the model code of conduct is followed in letter and in spirit during electoral campaigns.

Given the pulls and manipulations during an election, the campaign itself is often a threat to our constitutional values. The model code of conduct offers us a legitimate platform to take on the political ambitions of those who oppose the basically secular nature of our democracy. Communal (both caste and religion based) campaigning needs to be documented and opposed using legal provisions. Expenditure needs to be tracked, and violations reported. False affidavits need to be meticulously investigated, and taken to court with proof of the deceit. Weak laws and legal provisions need to be strengthened and people from peoples’ movements will have to understand that for them to effectively enter the arena of electoral politics, they will have to build up a parallel movement for an electoral process that at the very least reflects the spirit of our constitutional provisions. As in the case of many other basic legal provisions, violations of the electoral code of conduct have not been popularly enforced because most official observers are not interested enough and those outside have not made enough of a sustained effort to take violations to their logical conclusion. There have been small beginnings made by election watch efforts in various states. However, much more needs to be done. What is needed is an energetic and widespread peoples’ movement for truly "democratic" elections.

Eventually, of course, these are all political questions, issues and choices. Efforts like an election watch can only work to make sure that people really get a chance to choose. But the burden of offering a viable choice is to offer a genuine alternate politics. Where there is no substitute to participation, hard work and the building of a genuine alternative. Very small and tentative beginnings are being made by those who have kept away so far. They have made very significant gains in the field of non-party politics. The challenges in the ocean of electoral politics are far, far greater.

(The authors work with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. Aruna Roy is a national coordinator of the Lok Rajneetik Manch – a platform of people’s organisations set up to examine the engagement of people’s movements with electoral politics – [email protected])

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