[dropcap]A[/dropcap]S yet another republic Day approaches, the shadows of right-wing demagoguery looms large over political discourse across the globe. Free exchange of ideas and unadulterated exercise of rational faculty, imperative for a vital democracy, stands vitiated. The prophecy of Socrates auguring demagoguery as the Achilles heel of democracy peeks through the pages of history and stares me in the face.
The demagoguery that we witness around the globe is made possible by disrupting and distorting the field of democratic communication based on public reason in order to push through narratives that appeal to baser and relatively selfish domains of human consciousness. Public debates based on reasoning are drowned in the cacophony of fallacious logic and diversionary arguments, or even by a barrage of statements extraneous to the topics of public importance under consideration. TV debates that we see now aptly serve as a microcosm of such distortions in democratic communication. Every relevant debate is reduced to absurdity and thus democratic communication gets crippled. In such an environment, parochial narratives are pushed through with increasing force in order to secure the vote bank so essential to hold onto power.
Democracy and Public Reason
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells Adeimantus, in a seemingly undemocratic turn of dialogue, voting is a skill and any individual not possessed of it should not be allowed to vote. In this lay deep-seated angst concerning those who may get swayed by their baser instincts, shallow desires and misplaced fears. People may prefer, he argues analogically, the logic of a sweetshop owner over that of a physician who administers bitter potion. He urged for development of a rational mind for the effective exercise of voting rights, lest people may fall prey to fallacious arguments of a demagogue.
Whether it be Parliamentary debates, electoral contests or policy measures, democracy involves taking decisions and making choices. Decisions and choices can be made when we have adequate information on the alternatives – the course of action, the candidates or the policy options – available to us and the means to weigh these alternatives, either in our heads or by acquainting ourselves with others’ analysis, or through open debates and discussions.
When public debates and conversations are drowned in the cacophony of diversionary arguments, fallacious logic and irrelevant themes, we lack the information to develop a just understanding of issues at hand. We continue to witness, for instance, in the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, either the entire Northeast is projected as being flooded by illegal immigrants or there is no immigrant at all. The relevant issues of the burden of proof for citizenship, the status of proven immigrants etc take a back-seat, and the dispute spirals.
Worse still, our capacity to weigh alternatives is thoroughly compromised when our fears and passions are played upon insidiously. The narrative of ‘Hindus under threat’ or even ‘Muslims under threat’ suborn us paradoxically, since such liberties and securities are already guaranteed by the Constitution, into becoming political partisans, when we should be probing the seekers of our vote on their vision and work for development and nation-building.
In the melee, the real and the most pertinent goal of community life i.e. human flourishing suffers as it can be achieved only when public policy objectives, challenges associated with them and concrete measures to achieve them are evolved through considered public debates in an environment conducive to free play of public reason.
Nero, Kind Edward I and Hitler
In relatively stable societies, political power rests on mass support. Majoritarianism, thus, has been an effective tool of those who could sway public opinion with their specious and passionate arguments. Demagogues have appealed to ethnicity, religion, or ideological commitments of the masses and presented them with an internal enemy to fight against in order to consolidate and perpetuate their own power.
King Edward I of Britain adopted the method successfully in the late 1270s. In order to consolidate his rule, he adopted the method of rallying the majority behind him by presenting them with an internal enemy- the anti-national Jews who were charged with coin clipping and were forced to wear yellow patches, the practice that Hitler copied centuries later. They were subsequently arrested and executed in the dreaded Tower of London, and finally expelled from the country in 1290. It was not the first occasion in Britain. His grandfather’s brother, the renowned crusader Richard the Lionheart condemned the Jews to a similar fate in 1190, in keeping with the Jewish fate in the Christian continent of Europe.
Travel a thousand years back to 64 AD Rome, and you witness Nero, debilitated by bouts of insanity, trying to salvage his image and maintain his hold on power by blaming the Great Fire of Rome on the minority Christians which led to their persecution. Some blame the fire on Nero himself.
So the Reichstag Fire in 1933 by the Nazis seems again not to be their original idea. Hitler, two millennia displaced from Nero, and over six hundred years displaced from Edward I, worked upon their ideas and those of the several others preceding him, in a far more organized manner befitting the structures and training of the modern age, to unleash the worst miseries on the Jews and the Poles that we all know so well about. Following him, Idi Amin’s and Milosevic’s inflicted wounds that are still festering.
A self-defeating narrative
Not only is the parochial narrative malignant for democracy, but it is also self-defeating and unnecessary. Since the dominant and the dominated classes are reordered through the march of history and may swap places, parochial narrative based on sectarian interest typifies a self-defeating principle. Also since the modern Constitutions guarantee religious and cultural freedoms to all, the primal cause for exclusive religious-nations i.e. protection for a particular belief or culture ceases to exist. The desire of a religious community to have a nation all to itself is a stubborn ancient and medieval bump on a modern cultural palimpsest.
The Indian Republic 2020
Whether India is facing any such imminent threat remains a moot question, symptoms of the condition are evident. The polarisation of the citizenry, a pandemic of fake news, erosion of institutional autonomy, confusing government or an individual with the nation etc. comprise a few of them.
On the other hand, this narrative has unravelled as its impact on economic development and social cohesion has become manifest. Social media, a double-edged sword, has helped bust fake news and manipulations as much as it helped in their proliferation. In any case, India, as a nation of seekers, has long rejected doctrinaire commitment to any set of values and continues to dabble in questions of life and spirituality, or in general the true state of things, including the true nature of prevalent political discourses. Widespread protests and resistance movements, as markers of rational political culture, have started making its presence felt.
As we stand at the crossroads, the pertinent question here is should we allow a party or an individual to Pied Piper us for its own power or should we turn the table around and ask them the difficult questions in order to ensure human flourishing as enshrined in our Constitution? At long last, these questions are being paid heed to by the souls on the roads.
(Mohammad Wasimis an advocate practising in Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court. He also works for providing quality education in rural areas)