One of the strategies frequently adopted by the defenders of the current political regime has been to take the line: it has all happened before. So, creeping authoritarianism, blatant political interference in or abuse of constitutional institutions, mob violence; they say, all have happened before.
This argumentative strategy does two things for the defender. One is that it makes them feel comfortable in their conscience. Secondly, and more importantly, it helps them deny the truly new and unprecedented nature of the some of the disastrous consequences of the current regime’s acts of commission and ommission.
In addition, it helps them hide the sinister intent and design behind all the disasters, which in many ways are unprecedented. It is important to recognise its unprecedented nature to arrive at a correct diagnosis of the current crisis the Republic of India is undergoing.
In the last couple of years, several commentators have articulated the politics of the current regime in terms of the threat to the ‘Idea of India’ that is inclusive, tolerant, secular and multicultural. The threat is articulated more concretely as a threat to the political values inscribed in the Constitution of India. An important sign of this threat has been in plain view in the form of subversion of the autonomy and impartiality of constitutional institutions.
This implicitly refers to the fact that under the current regime, apart from the institutions such as the judiciary, the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission of India (ECI), the police and the CBI, the apolitical character of even the armed forces has been threatened.
All these institutions have been in the news in the last few years over controversies regarding the erosion of their autonomy or their blatant politicisation. In addition, the print, electronic and social media forums critical of the government policies have complained of threats, pressures and manipulations of various kinds in the recent past. The viciousness and pettiness with which the government used its agencies to go after its critics and dissenters further add to the atmosphere of fear.
While it is true that the Republic of India is no stranger to authoritarian tendencies and crises of institutions, what is new about the current predicament is unity of intention and design that flows from the ideological moorings of the Sangh Parivar, that is behind the multiple breakdowns that we are witnessed to.
One of the reasons for failure to recognise what was always in plain view was the refusal to make a clear distinction of the BJP as a political formation from other political parties.
While all other political parties are parties in the conventional sense i.e. political parties interested in gaining political power thorough democratic means, the BJP’s approach to politics in general and to political governance in particular is informed by an added logic.
This additional factor comes from not only just majoritarian and authoritarian but totalitarian intent of the RSS. The totalitarian logic manifested itself episodically in multiple ways in the last five and half years of the BJP-led NDA government.
It is well known that the professed ultimate goal of the RSS is to redefine India as a Hindu Rashtra, a goal that would require fundamental transformation of the Constitution of India. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act is nothing but a sly attempt to change the fundamental character of the Constitution by defining citizenship in terms that are discriminatory on religious grounds.
The implementation of Uniform Civil Code is the next big agenda in the same direction. A petition has also been admitted in the Supreme Court asking for the scrapping of National and State Minorities Commissions.
Another manifestation of the totalitarian intent of the RSS-BJP combine is its interventions in cultural and educational institutions. While most other political parties do interfere in the universities and colleges, but they are mostly limited to the appointment of administrative heads and other administrative posts.
The interventions by the RSS-BJP, in addition to controlling appointments, is qualitatively different and goes much deeper. It wishes to achieve a thoroughgoing transformation of the school and university education including the wholesale change in the syllabi at different levels. The overall project is to transform the content of Indian education with a definite intent of promoting Hindu majoritarian agenda.
In addition, the freedom and autonomy of students’ cultural and political activities that is a part and parcel of the students’ college life, have come under stress in recent years due to vigilante interventions, including physical violence, in the college and university campuses by the students’ wings connected to the RSS.
All these incidents – which emerged as a clear pattern in the last five and half years of the current
political dispensation – reveal a systematic authoritarian intent which perceives the norms, conventions and procedures – necessary for the functioning of constitutional institutions and of the rule of law – as inconvenient.
And the ways in which the law has not been allowed to take ‘its own course’ in case of incidents involving mob violence on religious minorities by Hindutva vigilante groups further adds to the fears and insecurities among the minorities and other marginal groups, particularly Dalits.
To point out this difference between the BJP-RSS combine and the other political formations is not to say that the political system and the government worked perfectly in the past. Far from that, like most democracies, institutions have frequently been found to be mired in allegations of corruption, partisanship and political interventions.
Compared to this comprehensive design of undermining the Constitution, the earlier episodes of authoritarianism and undermining of institutions were governed more by the contingencies of the political. With the BJP-RSS at the helm with full majority in the
lower house, it is both the extent of subversion as well as the nature of this subversion informed by the totalitarian intent pointed out above that has given rise to the unprecedented alarm regarding the threat to democracy and the Constitution as such.
The crisis would not have acquired the kind of depth it has if not for the absence of challenge from the political parties to the RSS-BJP’s Hindu majoritarian project. All the mainstream political parties have failed to show political intent of frontally taking the majoritarian bull by the horn. Neither have they come up with an alternative imagination of inclusive nationalism, leaving aside the occasional rehashing of old Nehruvian verities.
Leaving aside the academic and professional history, which is broadly limited to the English-speaking elite, the dominant imaginary of history at popular level is in consonance with the Hindu majoritarian perspective. The recent spate of Bollywood historical movies confirms as much.
In this regard, political parties have failed in their pedagogic task of translating the imaginary of inclusive nationalism and the constitutional values of equality, freedom and rights to the masses. This failure also explains why, even after 70 years of the Constitution, its values have failed to acquire depth by becoming part of the common sense of the people at large.
According to its etymology, the word crisis means a decisive state of things, a point at which change must come for better or worse. Originally, the word comes from the discipline of medicine wherein body in crisis meant it could either recover or die.
Whether the Republic will recover from the current state of crisis or will cease to exist as we know it, will depend on a variety of factors, including the role played by the political parties and the judiciary. The protests on the streets against the CAA for the last one month – led mostly by young men and women – have repeatedly turned to the Preamble of the Constitution and the political values inscribed in it.
These protests give us ample reasons for hope that the outcome of the crisis may not be predetermined in one direction.
(The writer is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Comparative Politics & Political Theory, School of International Studies, JNU. Views expressed are his own)