Democracy as a government which can be changed without bloodshed


By Pradip Phanjoubam

What a resounding victory it was for the BJP, nay Narendra Modi, who would be sworn in as the next Prime Minister of India in a few days. For months now, every election pundit in India and every pollster worth the name have been predicting a BJP victory, but even the most optimistic amongst them could not have imagined the victory would be so thorough and complete. The BJP did not just emerge as the single largest party in a divided House, as has become the trend in the Indian Parliament in the past many decades, making many observers of Indian politics presume coalition governments were an irreversible destiny of the country.

The BJP thus has scripted a new history in Indian Parliamentary elections, sweeping up a clean majority, comfortably crossing the halfway mark of 272 in a House of 543, bagging 282 seats, and together with its allies touching 336. It decimated the ruling Congress, leaving it to be content with only 44 seats on its own and 56 with its allies. The Congress cannot even officially qualify to be the Opposition party in the Parliament as it is short of the perquisite 10 per cent seats mark in the House.

Reams of newsprints have been dedicated to analyses of the second coming of the BJP and the unprecedented emergence of its undisputed and towering leader, Narendra Modi, by analysts who know Indian politics at the Centre much more intimately, so it would be futile to look for new things to say on the matter. However, to echo just two points which have come up in numerous discussions, Indian elections today has come to resemble the American Presidential elections, where the primacy is no longer on the political parties in contention, but the leader bearing the standards of the parties.

In hindsight then, had it not projected Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate in advance, it is difficult to imagine the BJP achieving what it just did. Many think this may be the future of Indian elections for all the time to come. The need would now be to project the Prime Ministerial candidate much ahead of the elections and then mobilize the campaign behind him.

The second major inference drawn by many from these elections is, the BJP’s victory was not just by its own merit, but equally by the Congress’s abject failures. Its election campaign was listless, and more than this, it had destroyed itself by two decades of misrule and corruption.

The world cannot but take notice of the verdict by secret ballot of 750 million Indian voters, and even the American government which once refused Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister, a visa to visit the country on account of his alleged complicity in the Gujarat pogrom of Muslims in 2002 as a retaliation to a murderous arson attack on Hindu pilgrims travelling in the Sabarmati Express, have seemingly shifted stance and according to newspaper reports, President Barack Obama, called up Modi to congratulate him on his victory and to invite him to visit the US. Modi’s critics back home in India too have had to swallow their prides, some graciously and others not so graciously.

This is what respect of majority verdict is about and this is the beauty of democracy which sets it apart from all other forms of governments. Of all the definitions which pertain to this understanding of democracy, the one forwarded by German philosopher Karl Popper stands out. He wrote in his book “All Life is Problem Solving”, that democracy is a system in which the people (demos) can make or remove their governments without the need for bloodshed. Indeed, the regime change that we just witnessed during the week, in what is the largest democracy in the world, was a demonstration of this sublime beauty. The people made their will clear by a majority verdict against a party in power and the latter immediately lost its legitimacy to rule and will be willingly making way for the party that the people voted for to be ushered in and take charge. This could not have happened in a monarchy or a dictatorship.

But the idea of the majority can often be problematic, as the world have been witness to in the wake of the rise of ultra nationalism in Eastern Europe ever since the collapse of the then Communist Bloc. What answer does democracy have when the majority, blinded by nationalistic or religious fervor, begins to want blood? In such societies, democracy, which in its essence is also a mechanism for sharing State power can catalyze and crystallize divisions within the society on lines of caste, creed, color and ethnicity. The ethnic cleansing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia in the last decade of the 20th Century is too recent to be forgotten. Even if these murderous wills belonged to majority populations, can they have the sanctity of a democratic verdict?

One of the greatest fears of liberal thinkers in India and elsewhere, of the Modi victory this time, is that it may also have elements of a similar macabre majority will, dictated by a wave of nationalistic fervor, which in turn was triggered by an all round insecurity of the Indian public caused by continued and brazen Congress misrule for two decades. Such widely shared public psychologies of insecurity have always been fertile grounds for the growth of dictators in history, as Erich Fromm so powerfully argues in “Escape From Freedom” in depicting the social conditions in which Adolf Hitler rose in Germany. At such times, besieged populations begin to look for strong, even brutally strong and decisive leaders. The majority verdict then becomes not so much a choice for freedom but one of flight from it, therefore dangerous. Freedom is far from the romance of popular imagination. It can be terrifying and in times of crises, and individuals often want to surrender it to “strong” leaders.

There is another idea that comes to mind in reflecting on this election verdict. Ironically this one is floated by an uncompromising critic of Modi – economics Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, who says development is freedom in his book by the same name “Development as Freedom”. Modi, it may be recalled, was not so much campaigning ideology, instead he was promising development. In an economy which was beginning to stagnate and inflation which was spiraling out of control, this promise would have caught the fancy of many, even the most secular voters. Although many dispute the story, the image of Gujarat under Modi’s chief ministership, was one of efficient governance and reciprocal GDP growth, setting the state apart from the other states, and indeed India itself, steeped neck deep as it was in a culture of unchecked official corruption under the Congress. Whatever the ultra nationalistic agenda Modi may be charged with, few will deny his interest is far from self aggrandizement, unlike so many other politicians and bureaucrats all over the country.

Between theories and practice however, there can be a world of difference, and who knows Modi may yet prove all his critics – well-meaning, cynical and malicious alike – wrong in the years ahead. It is our earnest hope that this is the reality which unfolds. We cannot however not caution that the majority verdict, though must be respected, is not always sacrosanct. As Atticus in Harper Lee’s 50 year old classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a novel about racism in the American south in the 1930s tells his two school going children, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Modi wave in the Northeast

Except for Assam where the BJP has made significant inroads, having bagged seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, the party hardly created a ripple in the Northeast. Some regional parties, most prominently, the Naga People’s Front, NPF, led by Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, which won Nagaland’s only seat contested by Rio himself, have pledged support to the BJP, in the hope that he can give the Northeast a presence in the Central government. As to whether his wish will fructify will only be seen in the days ahead, but from the way things have taken shape, this is unlikely, for the BJP now has seven of its own MPs from the region. In any case, Rio’s image is hardly one of a leader of the Northeast in general, as he takes with him an agenda exclusive only to the Nagas problem. And the Naga problem, as we all have seen, largely because of its insistence on its exclusivity and uniqueness, is not only a problem per se but very problematic as well. Nonetheless, it was brave of Rio to think of leaving his ensconced position as chief minister of Nagaland, to assume a new avatar as MP in the Indian Parliament, and our well wishes go out to him.

In Manipur his party, the NPF set up a candidate in the Manipur Outer constituency, but unfortunately did not manage to return. The divisive nature of Rio’s politics however was demonstrated in the voting pattern in the state. The Naga districts voted overwhelmingly, and in some places exclusively, for the NPF candidate Soso Lorho, while he received little or no votes in non-Naga districts, where the votes were by and large divided on party lines, though resourceful Congress managed to get its docile candidate, Thangso Baite, have the lion’s share. This, we cannot say is part of democracy’s beauty.


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