Beware a dystopic democracy


The film Joker – starring the amazingly versatile Joaquin Phoenix – now playing in the capital’s theaters – is a graphically violent and deeply despairing portrayal of a society sans any empathy for “losers” – those who end up believing they are one.

Every society has its share of drop-outs, misfits and the unlucky. Good, caring societies try and minimise both their pain and their isolation. Bad, uncaring societies shrug their shoulders, lock up the losers and carry on. Where do we stand in this spectrum?

India – a leader in assimilation

India has a long tradition of living with non-conformists. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, was one such. His progressive ideas on social reform only had lukewarm appeal in the Constituent Assembly debates. Neither did Hindu activists have universal appeal. The need to present a united front and get on with nation building diluted resistance to opposing points of view. But it also never built a new social ethic with wide public support. We got a wonderful constitution. But all it proves is that we are good at dampening dissent and in doing so hope to render it harmless. It rarely happens that way, as we have seen in Kashmir.

Resolution of buried discontent remains a problem

Sheikh Abdullah broke the status quo in 1930 through a peasant revolt against the ruling dynasty. Subsequently, the goal of independence from the British and post-Independence, the substitution of the ruling dynasty by elected representatives – aligned well with his own objectives. Over the two decades it took for these ambitions to be realised, the more substantive differences between him and the Congress, around the distribution of local political power remained subsumed. Thereafter he remained locked up for a decade from 1953 till he reconciled to the prevailing stalemate in Kashmir. Since 1989 Kashmir has been a cauldron of dissent. The most recent extended lock-down has yet again dampened dissent. We assimilated Kashmir but have yet to win the battle for minds and hearts.

Imagine if our poorly managed and institutionally weak metros go the same way. The film – Joker situated in mythical Gotham City – a replica of New York, spells out how cities become dysfunctional, crime endemic and institutions crumble till they are saved by a mythical Batman in the face of a hapless police force.

“Urban Naxalites” or unpaid government foot soldiers

In the urban context back home, it is puzzling that the few who work to highlight deficiencies in governance systems for the social protection and inclusion of the poor should be labelled pejoratively as “Urban Naxalites”. They are anything but that.

The Naxalites of the late 1960s and early 1970s believed that a violent, rural revolution was possible and around the corner in Naxalbari, West Bengal. They were wrong. The one lesson missing in their little Red Books was how to deal with a seductively supple State and an extraordinarily passive population, both of which are ready to absorb organised violence or prolonged civil unrest and carry on.

Far from seeking to topple the State, the “Urban Naxalites” of today believe in preserving the State and improving it to deliver services more effectively to the poor. The Nobel Prize for Economics, this year, has gone to three economists – two Americans and a Frenchwoman – all of who have spent the last two decades experimenting how to make education, health and social protection interventions more effective, not outside the State architecture – as the Naxalbari gang would have liked – but very much within the existing State architecture. These die-hard, do-gooders need to be celebrated for their efforts, not reviled because they are showing a mirror to our grotty selves.

Consider also the issue of human rights. Those who have the courage and the doggedness to highlight “zulum” during the inevitably heavy handed rule by the uniformed forces with a bureaucracy in disarray because of conflict in central India, the North East and in Kashmir, do so not to destroy the Indian  State. They act as unpaid agents of the State to make the administration of conflict zones less intrusive and liveable for innocents.

Human and Property Rights

Human rights come with a fundamental belief in “property rights” both of which are anathema to Communists for whom, the State is all encompassing and people exist because the State exists. By extension if tribes in central India or in the North East prefer to preserve their life in the forests, even though valuable natural resources lie unexplored and unexploited beneath them, the “property rights” principle advocates giving them the right to do so whilst reserving the right of industry or the State to persuade the owners to sign away their rights against agreed compensation. Ending a basic commitment to either human rights or to property rights ends the incentive to be productive and respectful of the law. We know that well since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

Cities at risk

In two decades more Indians will live in cities than outside them. Cities – particularly metros – with their higher population density, the pressures of synchronised co-existence, their 24X7 eco-system and the anonymity of its citizens, lend themselves to dystopia unless they are carefully managed.

What if city managements abandon the principles of human and property rights? How then would city managements be held accountable? More importantly how then would city managements hold empowered elites accountable? Would government itself, not become a mere hand-maiden of the rich and the powerful – usually a select few within the top 0.1 per cent of the population?

Good governance is more that mere resource extraction

By abandoning the principles of human and property rights, governments would resemble the erstwhile hapless zamindars, who had little to do beyond extracting as much revenue as they could, for feeding the beast in London – the East India Company. We would have wiped out every institution we have built since 1947.

We must choose. Either we should submit to becoming a big, all-pervasive State like China and hope that it will throw up benevolent, far sighted leaders. Or we must act on our belief that a State exists only because citizens choose to believe in it. Democracy is never divisible. Either it exists or it doesn’t. There is no “happy” path which can take us to a “Democracy with Indian Characteristics”.

Also available at TOI Blogs October 20, 2019

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