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Dissent-mukt Bharat? This is the model of reality Modi’s India follows

The place of the opposition in any democracy is between the government and the people. In India, opposition parties are confused about where they belong.

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Every government is based on a model of reality. So is Narendra Modi’s India and the logic of dissent-mukt Bharat. Tolerance, as well as intolerance, also exist on their own ways of reading reality. No ideology, political style, or religious mode can be understood without reckoning their underlying models of reality.

Everyone agrees in theory that a vibrant, vigorous opposition is vital to the health of a democracy. But, since 2014, an opposition-mukt India is being posited as a legitimate political goal. What does it point to? It appears that India is being relocated on the either-or model; extirpating the fluid, dynamic ‘middle’ from the bandwidth of our democracy. Either you are with Modi, or you are not; and if you are not, then you don’t quite fit in. And if you don’t, you are an anti-national.

This idea of the dynamic ‘middle’ in States has been debated and defined since the time of Aristotle’; in particular since the time of the German philosopher, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. And it is that middle that India needs to return to, if it wants to be democratic.

Also read: What Modi’s India must learn from Aristotle and Plato’s warning against demagogues

Between State and anarchy

The unwitting disservice that Greek philosopher Aristotle did to political philosophy was via his idea of reality. It comprised three principles: the Principle of Identity, the Principle of Contradiction and the Principle of the Excluded Middle. Put in common terms, it could read as follows. A thing is identical only to itself. The State, for example, is identical only to the State, and not to anything else. Second, the State cannot be its contradiction; that is, it cannot be anarchy. Third, there is nothing in between the State and anarchy. What doesn’t harmonise with the idea of the State is anarchic. So, one has to choose between the State and anarchy – there can be nothing in-between. Unfortunately, what dwells in-between is the life and aspirations of citizens; in particular, their democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution. Extrapolated to Aristotle’s mode of reality, dissent could seem anti-national, and portend anarchy.

Tolerance, many are worried today, is shrinking in India. It is necessary to understand why. Perhaps, there is nothing arbitrary or accidental about this development, which makes it all the more worrisome, because it could get worse, going forward. Consider, for example, the wide-ranging booking of people under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). As per records, about 7000 individuals have been arrested in the recent years under the UAPA. In most cases, the charges levelled against them pertain to activities that, say, a decade ago, would have been deemed non-subversive in a democracy. This affords a clue to what is afoot in the displacement of ‘Nehru’s India’ by the New India in the making.

A model of reality is best understood by contrasting it with its opposite. Hegel evolved such a model. He differed from Aristotle principally in relation to the Principle of the Excluded Middle, the crucial relevance of which he affirmed. To Hegel, if this zone of reality is excluded, we not only simplify reality, but also exclude progress and freedom. Everything exists in a state of flux in history. As Lord Buddha said, we cannot step into the same river twice. Change is the only constant. How can any change take place, if the intervening space between a thing and its contrary is ruled out? The progress, for example, from day to night is via twilight. After all, it is by transitioning to their opposites that most things become useful to the human condition. We don’t run lights by water – electricity needs to be generated from water, to power bulbs. Snake poison kills, but it saves lives and becomes the antidote to itself when modified through an appropriate process. This theory holds for many life-saving vaccines too. Ironically, development itself is possible only because there is a ‘middle zone’, a zone of struggle and effort, between status quo and progress.

Also read: Plato was right. Democracy always creates tyrannical leaders

India caught between Hegel and Aristotle

So, where does this leave India?

The outlook subsumed in the Constitution of India is Hegelian, rather than Aristotelian. But more and more people are made to take pride in the re-formatting of India as a hard State. The idea of reality that underlies this ‘hardness’—which is mistaken for vitality—is pre-modern.

Going by the dogma underlying the New India in the offing –that there is nothing in between the State and anarchy – it is inevitable that dissent becomes anti-national. Dissent belongs to the ‘excluded middle’ of democracy in the present scheme of things. It exists between dictatorship and slavery. India’s freedom struggle took place in this ‘excluded middle,’ of the Aristotelian model. So, our erstwhile colonial masters invoked the sedition law ever and anon. They would have been indignant, if anyone had told them that they were intolerant of dissent! As custodians of the State, they were simply being energetic in protecting the State from anarchy. Those we venerate as martyrs and freedom fighters today were, to the keepers of the Raj, extremists and terrorists.

The fundamental rights and safeguards guaranteed to citizens belong to the ‘excluded middle’ of the Aristotelian bandwidth of reality. The freedom of India is its offspring. If the Aristotelian idea were the last word on the human condition, despair, not hope, would have prevailed among the leaders of our freedom struggle. The possibility of freeing India existed in the ‘excluded middle’ between the Empire and anarchy. The main reason the custodians of the Raj felt bamboozled by M.K. Gandhi was that he belonged to this zone that they had excluded from the zone of reality and relevance. The main argument of the defenders of the Raj for perpetuating their control was that the departure of the British would plunge India into anarchy!

Religious dogmatism proves pro-status-quoist by casting reality in the Aristotelian ‘either-or’ model. Who is a believer? One who conforms to fixed modes of practices that are presumably godly. You have no place in the domain of a religion, if you don’t conform to them. You are, hence, either a ‘believer’ or a ‘heretic’. Yet, religious reform, which stems from the vitality of a religious tradition, happens through inspired women and men of integrity who do exist in between this straitjacketed either-or. Regrettably, religious formation in all religions happens before its members attain the ability to make informed choices regarding them. All informed choices exist in the ‘excluded middle’ in each religion. Religious dogmatism and political authoritarianism are reciprocal images of each other.

Politics cast in the mode of religion—as in the communal State—is irreducibly intolerant. Politicians, as Aristotle points out in Politics, are hugely benefitted by hiding behind the façade of religion. A great deal that would be reprehensible and insufferable will be tolerated, even lauded and rewarded, when they are swaddled in religion; provided religion itself is practised in the Aristotelian mode, rather than the Hegelian.

Also read: Modi’s India has lost hope. It needs a JP for the 21st century

Why the opposition matters

Since 2014, India has seen the slow erosion of the opposition.

The place of the opposition in any democracy is in-between the government and the people.

In the UK, the role of the leader of the opposition, the shadow Prime Minister, is second only to that of the Prime Minister.

The worrisome thing about Indian democracy currently is that the opposition parties themselves are in a state of debilitating confusion as to where they belong, and what their role should be. As Hegel points out ‘where the power to develop the contradiction and bring it to a head is lacking, the thing, or the being, is shattered on the contradiction’. That is to say, a democracy that is unable to generate a wholesome, effective opposition is bound to be wrecked, in due course, on its contradiction: dictatorship.

The opposition parties, on their part, need to know what it means to serve the people in a democratic society, and not degenerate into networks of obstruction. As per the Hegelian system, the outcome of the interface between thesis and antithesis should be the emergence of a higher synthesis. It is vital to the interests of the opposition parties that this higher synthesis emerges. Today, it is critical to their very survival. They will command credibility, and sustain the hope and zeal of the people, only when they kindle in them an expectation that something better, healthier is in the offing. They will be trusted and preferred only when citizens have reasons to believe that they are the midwives of that preferable and viable alternative.

If and when a democracy degenerates into dictatorship, the opposition parties, not less than its formal destroyers, will be condemned at the bar of history.

Valson Thampu is former Principal of St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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