Democratic thinking vs Democracy in Praxis.

It is very important that we understand the differences between these two. The basis of modern democracy is as much philosophical and ideological as much as it is rooted in practice. The much hackneyed quote of Sir. Winston Churchill (oh, that old doyen of democracy who didn’t bat an eye murdering 43 million Bengalis by deprivation!) that it is the worst form of government - except for all the others that have been tried. The quote looks neat, and gives us a nice pat on the back for having chosen Democracy.

But there is a problem here.

It is that the people who read this and take pride in democracy are hardly aware of other forms of government. Unless you live in a transitional society that’s slowly democratising post a catastrophic undemocratic government, you’re unlikely to have a perception of what is it like to live under a yoke - domestic or foreign. You are unlikely to have been equipped with enough skillsets to smartly analyse socio-political indicators to measure the health of your democracy. You may not have a ‘canary in the coalmine’ that will tell you whether you will lose your civil rights in the near future. Or, if there is an extant underground, but active, plan to slowly oppress you economically by imposing an extractive system over and above the economic system of your country/province.

This is typical of the infirmities that most of the quotes/ideas that support democracy have. If not backed with proper ideas of praxis, ideology of democracy could be standing on thin ice. Worse, it risks being used as a means to oppress an unsuspecting populace. If we comb through the myths of yesteryears, we’ll see them teaching people about the ruses of kinds and holymen who were ever trying to usurp their well being. Doesn’t democracy deserve its own set of myths and folklore that protects its adherents from the depradations of a maruading elite?

All these are very much real because that’s how humanity works. It is very easy for the individual to believe in the goodness of figures far removed from their immediate surroundings. Humanity invented halos so that the uncertainties of this world could be suspended around figures of authority. This suspension of disbelief is essential to the working of many social institutions that are founded more in prestige than on the routine display of hard power. No doubt, great amounts of violence crawl through the underbellies of our society that tries to put up an air of normalcy. Here, this mechanism works directly against Democracy taking deep roots in any society.

More so for India, where the culture is strong on idolising popular figures and giving them an aura of invincibility and inherent goodness that transcend their fallible humanity. Story of Indian democracy is also the story of many such wholesale abuses of the faith of Indians in the goodness of great men and women. This is a very important aspect of Democracy in praxis that needs to be stressed enough.

Other vices of our fledgling democracy - money being used as a substitute to genuine political work, state power directed to tilting elections in favour of one party, influence of primordial identities in the formation of political units, sabotaging the welfare agenda of state in pursuit of electoral victories alone, near total destruction of civil society as a check on the unbridled powers of the executive, emasculation of free speech ecosystem, corporeal destruction of organised opposition, diminishing space for ideological organisation - all of them exist because the praxis of democarcy is ignored. Most of our discourse around democracy in centred around the ideological dimension of giving value to each and everyone - even if those lofty ideals are not put into practice through a just social order.

It is pointless to expect political processes alone bring lasting social change in a sovereign democracy. This is because almost all political formations in scene will be geared towards capturing state power, with little regard for anything else. Even the ideological movements within will be moved by the concerns of popularity that could preclude them from capturing power. This system will slip into utter chaos if those who hold the vote - the commoner - is not educated in the best ways possible about how all these shifts affect them.

The model of imparting this education through schools alone may not be effective. For these things have to be taught by the communities and households. Indian religions - the ones originated here as well as those found their home here - have this habit of strongly enculturating the young with what they believe in. Such a cultural intervention is the need of the hour. Despite all their differences and possible animosities, various community groups should be brought together to develop a common democratic vocabulary. This shouldn’t be limited to the iconographic approach adopted by the early democrats. They were also the freedom fighters who freed us from the British yoke. But their project of making India democratic is still a work in progress.

I explicitly mention this iconographic approach of theirs because it focused on creating shared images, people and halls of fame in the proces of nation building. But it is not wholly immune to perverted ideological projects that seek to divide the nation. For example, imagery is always about the strong emotions that they elicit. If someone could conjure up necessary emotions to create stronger imagery (and efficient channels to distribute them), it would spiral into a cultural arms race. Sadly, the party that appeals to more primordial identities and related emotional complexes will have a natural advantage in eliciting emotions in their favour.

Here, we should be smart enough to see that this process will not benefit any single party alone for a long time. They may seem to win the war by playing to a set of emotions over a constituency over a period of time. But invariably, a new iconoclasm will arise, much more fierce and committed towards conjuring up necessary resources to take the entrenched party heads on. They may or may not be concerned about national domination. If they are not, they will easily achieve a fragmentation of polity. If this culture war is allowed to go unabated, it will ultimately end up in cleaving our country and polity along lines that benefit these “political entrepreneurs” who sell anything that they can put their hands on in their pursuit for power. The ultimate beneficiaries are only their allies and attached families. Everybody else in the country stands to lose out. Elections degenerate into contests of differences alone and not a meditation on possibilities of co-existence.

In a consummate democracy, elections are not contests of differences alone, but a meditation on possibilites of co-existence.

This is where democracy in praxis should be set up. It consists of large scale political organisation work that focuses on creating systems that impart this essential knowledge to the people. The spread of technology alone would not magically make things better for us, as we have painfully learned in the last decade. Every socially responsible citizen would have to take upon themselves this need to educate, create and spread positive propaganda that will make democracy stronger. We should work harder for we cannot let our democratic elections relegate into a mere contestation of identities. Over and above that, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Democracy in itself is no end, but only a means towards a dignified existence for all. Democracy is not something to be proud about; it is a set of responsibilities that we can only shirk at the cost of our fulfilling existence.


Written on April 24, 2023