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Dhaka Tribune

The new rajahs

Update : 27 May 2014, 06:11 PM

With every passing day, the praxis of representative democracy is getting hollowed out. I consciously borrow this term oft-used by Arundhati Roy. This is true all over the world, including the Indian Union. Here, I would like to focus on a specific type of hollowing – a very insidious one at that.

There are elected institutions and bodies that claim representation legally. What has been a part of the hollowing out process is the result of a conflation of representation and legality, and the reversal of the causal relationship between them that exists in human collectives. This has dangerous implications for our future.

Power and resources per se do not confer a legal right of governance - without the ethico-moral principles that creates a semblance of that right. Even extreme asymmetries in power between the ruler and the ruled does not take away the value of these principles – even if the extreme asymmetry, does create, in transience, a milieu of governance that is bereft of disturbance.

However, in the mind of the ruler, and in the impression of the ruled, there is a tension – a tension of having no claim to such power. In the past, what conferred such power and hence, legality? And what were the ethico-moral underpinnings of such claims?

Monarchy – from empires to small feudal domains – was till very recently the commonest system of governance. The king of Nepal claimed to be Vishnu himself, in a human form. Muslim rulers in India mostly ruled in the name of the ruler above him, in a system of hierarchical allegiances, all with obeisance to Allah and essentially part of a Caliphate. Most Hindu rulers claim descent from the Sun or the Moon or other celestial deities.

This was true for caucasians whose kings ruled in the name of many gods and their orders and in later days, as the representative of the Christian God on earth. The underlying point is – the claim to rule legally, came from a body or power which in some sense represented collective welfare and destiny – in these cases, divine powers.

Without the hinge of an ethico-moral frame from where power emanates, a legal right to govern and rule was not without dispute. Also, the disputes of who the ruler is and wars between rulers, would finally be reconciled at the end to such claim of speaking for or representing the divine – the divine being important as it, in a sense, had a connection with all humans.

It was, by definition, imagination and reverence, something in which most had a stake. What is to be gathered from this is that even in the mind of a monarchic ruler – the right to rule and the legality of the strictures of the ruler – did not flow solely from material power of law enforcement, though that is how that right was executed. Representativeness is a constitutive part of that legality.

Here is where the present comes in. A ritual of representation is different from the human, ethico-moral process of representation. While the ritual is at best a medium of representation, it is certainly not an end in itself. In a rational-scientific society, where the only admissible categories of human behaviour and collective action have to be measurable ones and efficient from the point of view of industrial planning – the ritual of representation – being amenable to measurement and efficiency computations – deified as the source of legality.

Ethico-moral principles are much more problematic – they cannot be “measured” – and the form of democracy that is best hold within itself such ethico-moral underpinnings, that is participatory democracy, is “inefficient.”

In this machine view of the democratic process, whatever you feed in from one end of this quasi-industrial process, if it involves non-banned thoughts, election notifications, voting booths and candidates, the output at the other end is, by definition, representative.

The next connection is not hard to make. Legality also flows from this “representativeness.” The silent but real weeding out of the ethico-moral core from legality and the right of governance has ominous implications. The rulers of today, unlike erstwhile ones who had to come up with complex connections with the divine, can outsource those itchy doubts on their own legality to the said industrial process itself.

In some sense, this makes rulers of hollowed out democracies more dangerous, as they are more confident of their legal right to wield power and at the same time have, in their minds, nothing to reconcile or prove. With that confidence comes a reversal of the causal chain of how rights emanate.

Now, what is legal is necessarily representative. And then as a corollary, what is illegal is necessarily unrepresentative. The ever-shrinking fate of dissent in such societies, in particular, contemporary India, is hard to miss. This is also inextricably tied to the development of other sources of representation in these societies – some of them “illegal.”

Some of the “illegals” are also rituals unto themselves in turn term the dominant ritual as “illegal.” Given the ideologies of unitary representation they share with dominant forces, it is sad but true the space for a plural, participatory democratic process with an ethico-moral core is disappearing in India.

The new rajahs, both the “legal” and the “illegal” ones, are godless. The rituals, backed either by high court and police or “people’s court” and red guards, both increase this process of making a democratic society full of catacombs. This is not a long-winded argument to return to some old despotism. One must continue to hope that life lurks there in spite of the “legal” and “illegal” assaults on democracy. After all rituals can only exclude ethico-moral churnings and not destroy them.

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