5 reflections on the state of democracy in India

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Over the last month, I participated in three pro-democracy spaces. The first was the World Forum for Democracy (WFD) in France, where we were presenting our work on deep democracy. The second was the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). And the third was a local process, Nafrat Chodo Samvidhan Bachao (NCSB).

These spaces had their contrasts and similarities. One was international, the other national and the third local. In the first I was a presenter, in second a delegate of a group and in the third a co-creator. Yet, all three were responding to the state of the world as it exists today. All three had a sense of urgency, an intent to create hope and a reflective quality to it.

Here are five reflections from these experiences.

Given the pressures of time, the urgency created by war and our limited attention spans, one has to simplify messages for them to reach broader audiences. In doing that, we have to surrender to the binaries that are playing out. This only makes polarities stronger.

Was I pro the Ukraine war? Not at all. Was I answerable for my government’s position on the war? I must confess feeling a little embarrassed given the first hand suffering that was being spoken about.

Was I anti BJP on all matters? Not really.

When a yatra slogan went “Sharaab nahi humein pani chahiye”, I chanted it, remembering that a part of me loves my occasional drink. Was I against all forms of privatisation? No!

But in spaces like these one has to take stands and communicate them in the shortest possible time. People are waiting to tag, classify and then choose how they will respond. Everyone, including me, is too eager to speak and reluctant to listen.

No nuance for us, thank you. We want to make crisp speeches, take black and white positions and amp up the rhetoric. How do we challenge and defy this? How do we refuse to be a part of the rhetoric while still engaging with people across the spectrum?

The singers at WFD were singing about losing their homes to war. These weren’t only lyrics though, because the band was actually made up of refugees whose homes had been bombed. Friends in Germany were trying to reduce the use of heating because there was a national energy shortage. More than half the world doesn’t even have democracy.

While things in India are stark and difficult, we still have an opposition party leader carrying on a nation-wide yatra without being arrested. We still have political parties that are contesting in that arena. We have a civil society that chooses to resist in spite of pushback from the government. This is precious and must be preserved.

We still have structures like the family and the mohalla, the chowks and the addas. We don’t have a real war at our border and our economy is still not broken down. All this can change, and change very rapidly. But at this moment in time, we are still in a space where we can draw on these strengths and steer to a different course.

There are many privileges that became visible as I saw the state the world is in today. At the same time I couldn’t unsee the irony of it all. I was feeling grateful for what are my basic rights. In my own country large parts of the population are still homeless and depend on rations. And this moment itself is fragile, given the possibility that all this that I am grateful for may shrink further in the coming decade.

The photograph with Rahul Gandhi or Medha Patkar was the high point for a surprisingly large number of people. I suspect they cared more for that moment rather than for what either of the people were saying or stood for. And this appeal cut across even with people who disagreed with them.

I saw NCSB passing a BJP karyalay (office) and an amicable interaction between the yatris and the party workers. The BJY was almost entirely focussed on Rahul, with people absolutely doting on him. There is the valuing of effort, of sacrifice and of penance in the Indian psyche, and the yatras tapped into them very well.

But at the same time this is a new form of sacrifice and inconvenience. The food at BJY was great. There were charging points and arrangements for the longer term yatris were decent. It seemed like great event management, and made the process more nourishing. This was in sharp contrast to a yatra I did with Ekta Parishad, where we had one meal a day and the yatris slept on the roads.

The common factor however, across all these places was the presence of charismatic leaders around whom everyone was converging. Ambedkar had warned us about the perils of blind devotion to larger than life leaders. But we have ended up making him larger than life as well!

I wonder how will we ever transition to a society based on ideas as much as we are magnetised by people. Perhaps, it is human nature to feel adulation, project greatness and pedestalise, even while it comes with its costs. Bhakti is after all, a path to the divine.

Across each of these spaces, big tech was a very palpable force. What social media algorithms choose to trend decides how many people show up for these events. Intentionally or not, these companies shape how we look at the public sphere, and they have hijacked it with their monopolitic power. Any attempts to control them by governments could put the administration itself at risk, given how influential these platforms are.

These companies are primarily answerable to their shareholders, which have concentrated power in the hands of a small number of individuals and institutions. Together, they can impact the quality of discourse and the direction of the narrative in any country including ours. This is a game that can be openly rigged through economics and regulatory pressure by those already in power.

How will we deal with the challenge of big tech, at a time when AI is already making large strides is going to decide the future of our open society. And while we want to take this seriously, we do not know how, yet.

We are perhaps in this tiny period where climate change hasn’t become as severe, authoritarian governments still have some way to go before becoming dictatorships and income equality can still be measured in Oxfam reports.

Alongside this there are thousands of resistances, creative initiatives and alternatives sparked by the imagination of common people that are challenging these dominant forces. And each of them is led by inspired people who have made this their life’s work.

Over the world, this tribe is connected and continues to work to create a better world for our present and future generations. This nameless tribe infuses spaces and conversations with hope. Just as we are headed towards a disaster, we could just be a few turns away from a better world as well, It is only that the counter current is not as visible, perhaps because it is not a monolith. But make no mistake, it is there. It is generating hope and nourishing the soil at all levels.

It is a fascinating time we are living in, and each of our choices is going to shape the way things turn out. I get reassurance from the fact that I am not alone, and that the crazy dreamers of the world are all out there and reimagining status quo.

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