What is likely to replace the first republic? When? How? Can we still save the republic? What is to be done?
These are the most critical and difficult questions of our time that political sense and political science must confront. They do not admit of a “correct” answer, at least as long as history admits the inescapability of contingency. Let me only, in conclusion, sketch three possible courses that the journey of democracy may take in the near future, without assigning probabilities.
The first route leads to a long Indian summer. We may be witnessing a quick transition from the first “socialist, secular, democratic republic” to a quasi-democratic, firmly majoritarian, and crony-capitalist republic. We could date the inauguration of the second republic to 2014, when the BJP started consolidating its electoral, ideological, and coercive power into a new one-party dominance system. Unlike the famous Congress system of consensus, the new “BJP system” is based on a concentration of power, a sectarian ideology, and the social exclusion of minorities. This second republic need not have a new constitution for as long as the Modi regime can define and redefine the threshold of tolerance for deviations from constitutionally mandated procedures. The constitutional form of parliamentary democracy may remain untinkered with, yet for all practical purposes India could become a Latin American-style presidential democracy where the supreme leader draws power from the people and is answerable only to them. The public could be continuously mobilised to undo the republic.
In such a new dispensation our political system, while retaining the label “democracy”, would in practice be describable as “competitive authoritarianism”. Elections would be held without fail, but only in order to affirm the supreme leader’s popularity. Instead of being one among many episodes in a representative democracy, elections might then become the only available democratic episodes. Any form of political contestation outside the electoral arena – dissent, protests, and human-rights struggle or civil-society activism – would be ruthlessly suppressed. For its survival and popular endorsement, the second republic’s ruling dispensation would depend on occasional electoral endorsement, a massive propaganda machine, formal and informal regimentation of the “independent” media, indirect control of the judiciary and other “autonomous” institutions, continuous crusades against “internal enemies”, and regular military adventures, especially preceding an election.
India may never formally be declared a Hindu Rashtra. It would be unnecessary, for the second republic is likely to be a non-theocratic majoritarian state with a de facto hierarchy of religious communities. An American style “melting pot” model could be tried in India, with the pot bearing a distinct Hindutva stamp. We are unlikely – or so I hope despite the Delhi riots of February 2020 – to witness large-scale anti-minority pogroms, in part because the regime would like to avoid the international outcry that is bound to follow such violence. In any case, since the need of the day in our second republic would be to reduce the minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, to the status of second-rung citizens, quotidian put-downs and symbolic violence would suffice.
Dalits and adivasis may not face the same kind of onslaught, because the ruling regime in the second republic would be cognizant of the political benefits of accommodating them, at least symbolically. To grind their noses into the dust would in any case seem unnecessary, given a de facto hegemony of upper-caste Hindus. In our New India the politics of social justice would effectively have taken a back seat, with any expression of Dalit or Adivasi upsurge being nipped in the bud or tamed. While the imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi states would be deemed an unnecessary upsetting of the apple cart, cultural homogenisation in all other respects would be the state’s agenda. Our second republic may not be quite the Hindu Rashtra of Savarkar’s dreams, but as close to its 21st-century version as required and feasible.
And now to consider the second possible route. This would involve a period of uncertainty, a no-man’s land between the first and the second republic. It may result from simultaneous movements in both directions, preventing either a firm hegemony or its effective reversal. The counterbalancing could come from various directions. The BJP might keep losing power in the states while continuing its success story at the centre. The regional forces might, belatedly, offer effective resistance to the BJP’s political hegemony and its drive for cultural homogenisation. Or the BJP might lose national power in 2024, only to bounce back sooner or later, as Indira Gandhi did quite soon after her defeat in 1977. This might delay the transition to the second republic. Though unlikely, opposition might even come from within. An intense power struggle within the BJP, however inconceivable it seems at the moment, might possibly defer or deter this transition. We cannot rule out another version of this internal challenge: a party other than the BJP might use the template of nationalism and Hindutva, or its milder versions, to defeat the BJP in elections. As a popular advertisement has it, “Impossible is Nothing”.
There are other possibilities as well. The balancing might come from a hidden hand outside the electoral-political domain. Attempts to smother diversities could trigger resistance from other social cleavages, such as caste and language, that the regime might find difficult to overlook or polarise to its advantage. Or, while the regime continues to dominate elections and public opinion, its success might be undermined by abject failure with handling the economy. Signs of such failure are in evidence already: an economic slowdown that does not look just cyclical; farm distress triggered by an agrarian crisis and accentuated by climate change; the highest recorded rate of unemployment, and rising inflation.
So far, the regime’s handling of the economy has been amateurish at best; its attempts with data suppression and impatience with ideologically unaligned economic advisers have, to put it euphemistically, raised eyebrows everywhere. It is possible, therefore, that the large numbers of those at the bottom of the pile will begin to connect their economic distress and absence of hope on the horizon with an incompetent government and punish it. Popular movements could channelise such disaffection. Even as the institutions of democracy keep collapsing, powerful movements might, as they have in the past, fill the vacuum for a time and retrieve some democratic balance. Any or all of these counterweights to the BJP might temporarily halt or slow the hegemonic march of the BJP, but not challenge its fundamentals. For all we know, in real life this might be the most optimistic scenario.
A third route, a mirage for the moment, promises a reversal of hegemony and reclamation of the republic by the public. This route too involves a radical transition: there can be no return to the ancien regime represented by parties like the Congress. In this route, the second republic would show a new configuration of power, a renewal of the idea of India, a new social contract. It may be hard to visualise what such a transition might entail, let alone how it can be brought about. The last essay in my book (chapter 15) tries to respond nevertheless to this all-important question: “What is to be done?” The strategy suggested there (in 2017) remains relevant in its broad outlines. The immediate focus should be on mass movements on the economic front, mainly involving distress-affected farmers and unemployed youth. In the medium run, a political reconfiguration involving existing parties and social movements would be needed. In the long run, there can be no escaping the battle of ideas that necessitates a reaffirmation of nationalism, the recovery of pluralist religious traditions, and a reconnection with our languages.
The strategy and the tactics of this third, counter-hegemonic, route need constant fine-tuning. But two lessons are already clear. First, a struggle to rescue Indian democracy cannot be separated either from the battle to save the Indian model of a diverse nation, or from the need to resurrect the promise of an inclusive welfare state. A single point “save democracy” or “save constitution” movement is unlikely to succeed. The political battle has to go hand in hand with struggles in the economic and cultural spheres. And second, the electoral arena may not be central to the historic mission of reclaiming the republic. We are unlikely to witness a repeat of 1977 when an authoritarian ruler quietly stepped down after an electoral defeat. Mass mobilisation and popular resistance outside the electoral arena are going to be prerequisites for any effective reversal of the hegemonic power.
The ongoing anti-CAA movement of 2020 offers a glimmer of what such resistance might look like. It is hard to anticipate how this movement might appear in the mirrors of the future, or even by the time this book is published. It might well turn out to be a short-lived protest of the north-east and the Muslim community. In any case, such a movement is unlikely to become the fulcrum of a counter- hegemonic politics. And yet the dynamics of this movement does have all the elements of what a dramatic turnaround might involve: the outpouring of masses on the street; an outburst of new ideas, slogans, and poems; the sudden fusing of issues and social groups; the evaporation of fear in the face of state repression.
Such hopes appear romantic today. But if democracy is about instituting uncertainty into the heart of public life, there are perhaps no reasons powerful enough to snuff out all hope.
This excerpt from Making Sense of Indian Democracy by Yogendra Yadav has been published with permission from Permanent Black and Ashoka University.