The question for Indian democracy
Beyond the alternately vituperative and vacuous media talking heads and their unending propaganda blitz, this week’s Republic Day flashpoint in New Delhi casts an unblinking spotlight on the nature of Indian democracy in transition.
There are only a few undisputed facts: Since November last year, several hundred thousand farmers -- mainly from the states of Punjab and Haryana -- have set up camp just outside India’s capital city, united in their demand that Narendra Modi’s government withdraw three controversial laws that were quickly passed through parliament in September.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 are all positioned as much-needed reforms that will liberate India’s massive agricultural sector. But many farmer unions suspect them as a ploy for crony capitalists to seize control of yet another sector of the economy. Their protests include the demand for legal guarantees for minimum prices for their produce.
An extremely tense stand-off has played out in the intervening months. The current Indian government has an unshakeable hold on parliamentary procedure, which allows it to act at will, but facing off against farmers makes for poor optics.
From ancient times through Gandhi to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s indelible slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” there is deep-seated reverence for the agricultural heartland built into Indian cultural identity.
Thus, nothing the government has tried has worked so far, and there have been several embarrassing reversals. For just one example, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned the director and trustees of Khalsa Aid -- a UK-based charity that has been providing various kinds of aid to the protestors -- for questioning at an official deposition, but then quickly postponed their request after the humanitarian organization was officially nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Khalsa Aid’s work has been highly acclaimed in dozens of different conflict zones and disaster relief circumstances, from Indonesia to Congo. After the NIA summons, it said: “A large-scale indiscriminate NIA investigation of this nature against voluntary agencies, groups and individuals who provide humanitarian support is unprecedented in Indian history. We urge all international bodies and monitoring agencies to hold India to account on what appears on the face of it a politically motivated step.”
Just as the Modi government received an unexpected reprieve when the Covid-19 pandemic dismantled and drove indoors all the entrenched nationwide protests against its moves to redefine crucial aspects of Indian citizenship, it was clearly hoping the Republic Day skirmishes in New Delhi would discredit the farmers.
Immediately afterwards, there has been nigh-unanimous, high volume official condemnation of the crowds who entered the Red Fort ramparts and exultantly unfurled union flags as well as the Nisan Sahib pennant (which celebrates Sikh faith).
But we can already see this particular mass of protestors cannot be easily dismissed, and they continue to muster broad sympathy across the country. Considering its recent offer -- to suspend the laws for 12 to 18 months, and appoint a joint committee to resolve problems -- was summarily rebuffed, it now seems increasingly likely the administration will retreat entirely, if only for the moment.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta has decoded the implications of all this with great acuity in his Indian Express column. He wrote: “In the wake of the BJP’s growing success and the ascendancy of Hindutva, there is a new kind of misanthropy towards the people. If some elites are embarrassed that the people don’t understand economic development, others are horrified that large numbers have thrown in their lot with the BJP. This worry might be understandable, but it is a challenge for democracy.”
Mehta points out: “The sense that people are dupes or evil is not a propitious starting point for a democracy, and only reinforces the political pathologies it is meant to encounter. When there are shards of resistance, a CAA movement or a Punjab farmers’ movement, an occasional local electoral victory, the opposition suddenly embraces the people in all its glory. But the blunt truth is that it has been difficult to translate these movements into a broader fraternity or political coalition.”
This leaves us with the paramount paradox of our times. Mehta concludes: “The BJP claims to speak the language of the people without democracy, and the opposition wants to speak the language of democracy without the people … outside of political contexts, there is enough vitality, creativity, and reciprocity, where the people are expressing themselves in all their concreteness, individuality, and complexity, more than enough to sustain faith in the face of political disillusionment.
“But we will need a new mode of conversation to capture that [and so] the question for Indian democracy is: In which language will we learn to speak of the people where we don’t avoid the horrifying impasse we are at?”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.