How has India’s politics changed over the last five years? This is as important for setting the agenda of the new government as it is for assessing the performance of the incumbent one.
That the political discourse has coarsened is self-evident. There is greater intrusion of the media into public and private life, & a lot of what they serve up is degrading, rather than enlightening or redemptive.
The media are segmented, not just into print and electronic, but also into the editorially validated and the social media that dispense with such validation. Popular faith in the media as a whole has deteriorated, with print suffering the least. A minister of the present government was one of the first to use the term, Presstitute.
Democracy in Retreat
Programming heads at entertainment channels have tweaked the content of their staple serials to accommodate the tastes of a new segment of viewers — men, who have fled news television to join their spouses in watching those serials. Those who were late to cotton on to the trend lost viewers to the savvy early movers.
There is a lot of fake news on social media, purveyed by conscious design, by professional creators of such content and disseminated over multiple platforms and millions of WhatsApp groups. Fake news serves not just to spread false information but also to popularise false binaries: secular vs nationalist, blind loyalty to the powers that be vs sedition.
The Sangh Parivar has long identified Muslims with Pakistan, Christians with western powers and alien culture and communists and followers of any shade of Left politics with national betrayal. The social media have been working overtime to reinforce these identities. The result has been to erode democracy.
Democracy is not an absolute state but an evolving process, anywhere in the world. The arrival of President Donald Trump in the US and of xenophobic leaders in various parts of Europe expose the contingent core of the so called advanced democracies. India is a young democracy, stumbling along the path to recognition of majority rule as something altogether distinct from a codified balance between individual and group rights, including minority rights. India’s polytheistic religion with great theological diversity that allows little space for deeming any religion as deviant, its multicultural society and history should actually help India evolve swiftly as a democracy. Instead, diversity has become a source of schism, of the virulent kind that produces lynchings.
Secular has become sickular in the parlance of social media. India’s 14% minority, the Muslims, are seen as an object of appeasement, a vote bank, rather than as the socially, economically and politically deprived group placed just above the scheduled castes and below the other backward castes in a groupwise ranking of human development.
The scheduled tribes come at the bottom of the heap, of course. Long oppressed and rendered trespassers ever since the colonial government appropriated forest lands, other than those owned by private individuals, as crown property, India’s tribal population saw institutional advance with the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006. But any law is only as good as its enforcement.
Growing Military Shadow
Disdain for obtaining tribal consent to development projects on their lands under the present government has strengthened the paradigm of conflict between the people and development. This has strengthened the cause of Maoists, who thrive on that paradigm and who would be undermined by a paradigm of inclusive growth in which the people become stakeholders in development. That, in turn, means ever more vigorous repression of Maoists. Maoists mingle with ordinary tribal villagers.
The result is violation of the human rights of tribal people on an increasing scale. Rights activists who dare defend the victims of such violation are slapped with serious charges and put behind bars, where they languish without bail. The absolute certainty that the State knows best and that individual citizens who question the state are traitors, if not merely misguided, has led to crackdown on dissent — in Kashmir, on university campuses, in dalit villages. Order at the expense of liberty only breeds alienation and eventual revolt.
Putting down revolt becomes what management-speak describes as a hygiene factor. This raises the importance of using the armed forces in internal security, and of the armed forces in general. The army occupies far more acreage in India’s public life than ever before.
Serving and retired officers make political statements. To subject the conduct of individual soldiers or of the army as directed by the government to critical inquiry is seen as anti-national. Even more insidious is the gradual identification of the army with the head of the government. Modiji’s army, said BJP politicians. My soldier, said the PM in an election speech. The result has been political regress to a lower level of democracy. India’s diversity calls for ever-expanding levels of democracy.