As India's general election looms nearer, it is becoming clearer that this year's campaign for the masnad of Delhi will possibly be the most ruthless in recent times. Three other election campaigns bearing some resemblance to this year's bitter quest for power come to mind: 1977, when the horrors of the Emergency regime burst into the open; 1984, when the Congress ran a malignant campaign demonising everybody who sought sanity amid a strange madness and 1989, when for the first time Right and Left came together to fell the Congress, a body blow from which it has never quite recovered.
The vituperative rancour that marks political discourse in India today, with politicians across the spectrum discarding all vestiges of restraint and decency, is in many ways reflective of a global trend. Recall the American presidential election campaign and subsequent elections in Europe. Disruption has come in many forms, not only as unforeseen election results.
The increasing coarseness of the campaign discourse, however, is at best a distraction from other worrisome trends.
Soon after Donald Trump's stunning victory, two well-known public intellectuals, one an American and the other his liberal cousin from across the pond, held forth at a conclave in Goa on how it's increasingly imperative to disallow 'some people' from winning elections. "Democracy's terms of engagement need to be reframed and barriers raised," the European liberal told an audience which did not quite get the import of that suggestion. His American cousin, though a Republican, concurred.
In a sense, this call to wreck the democratic process and subvert the popular vote brings the once common practice of ballot box-snatching and booth-jamming full circle. What was a regular feature of American elections in the early years of that nation came to define elections in India in the 1960s through 1990s till the electronic voting machine surfaced and assertive politics of counter-domination arrived. Coincidentally or otherwise, we are now witnessing the resurfacing of the anti-democratic urge in the world's oldest and largest democracies. All means, it would seem, are fair to block those who are disliked by the disinherited, disentitled and dethroned.
This is glaringly obvious in India where entrenched regional political parties have sought to shut the doors on anybody challenging their hegemony. A case in point is the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal which has denied permission to the BJP for legitimate political activity. In a role reversal, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh is accused of denying permission to the Samajwadi Party (SP) for equally legitimate political activity.
These are only two examples. Something very similar is also being seen in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where the Prime Minister is painted as an alien who needs to "go back". In Kashmir, every prime ministerial visit prompts a Hurriyat-enforced shutdown. In Bihar we have seen 'Bihari vs Bahari' politics play out. Nativism, we forget, drives a spike through the heart of democracy.
A very thin line separates democratic protest and undemocratic exclusion. It is important to determine that line and avoid transgressing it.
The grammar of anarchy, to borrow BR Ambedkar's memorable coinage, can never strengthen democracy; if anything, it renders democracy unfunctional. And that, more than the increasing crudity of public discourse, should agitate people irrespective of their voting preferences.
There are two foreseeable consequences to blocking or disrupting participation in legitimate politics, especially electoral politics. The first
is the enormous scope it offers to the discriminated to run a vicious retaliatory campaign using modern digital tools whose content would never be either restrained by convention or circumscribed by law. The impact of such a campaign would go beyond mobilising votes. Second, it runs the risk of making the masses on both or mutliple sides of the political divide more apathetic to democracy and cynical about why the democratic process is good, strengthening their belief in the Indian adage, Jiski lathi uski bhains (he who has the stick owns the buffalo).
The point, however, is and shall remain that owning the buffalo (or for that matter the cow) is far less important than owning the vote and exercising it in a free, fair and transparent election. Every democracy needs more democracy and pluralism, more liberty and freedom, more choices and options, and not less. Post-Third Reich Germany did not outlaw elections; it made them more participatory and more transparent. Rigging elections and punishing voters for stamping on the 'wrong' symbol, as the Left did for decades, will rebound one day or the other. Tragically, the Left has fallen but its odious practices have remained, donning the jersey of another 'ideology', a much maligned and little understood word in India.
This is where the Election Commission of India, the real custodian of democracy (unlike constitutional offices that have long ceased to be, or perhaps were never meant to be, bipartisan) can and must step in to ensure the democratic process is not perverted by myopic politics. The judiciary can at best enforce the law that allows peaceful gathering; beyond that there is little it can do to ensure compliance with the democratic spirit. The EC, on the other hand, can make political parties comply with basic rules of engagement and adhere to non-exclusionary, non-turf war politics couched in bogus ideological sloganeering, best exemplified by the fact that in today's India, as also in today's America, those posing as 'anti-fascists' are increasingly displaying the very traits of fascism they claim to loathe.
The language of politics has transmogrified into something that would fail the easiest pop quiz on old world decency. It could be argued that this is an inevitable outcome of the process of democratising politics and liberating it from the clutches of the Beltway and Lutyens elite.
But democratisation of politics would be rendered meaningless if participation in election campaigns were to be made hostage to the caprices of individual politicians or the parties they represent.
If politicians do not get this simple message, the people will drive it home when India votes this summer. Remember, the rise of the BJP began the day LK Advani was arrested at Samastipur in October 1990. Had he been allowed free passage through Bihar to Ayodhya, it is entirely possible politics in India would have taken a different trajectory and we would be discussing market-driven economics and not faith.
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