On March 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enthusiastically tweeted, “The festival of democracy, Elections are here.”
The sentence rings of grave irony. But I will come to that later.
The word ‘festival’ – be it religious, secular, cultural or political – ideally denotes celebrating something more than oneself. It extends to a community and is a reminder of larger ties – a community is religious on the occasion of a religious festival.
But there can be communities of other kinds, visible during the celebration of festivals that do not (or no longer) have religious connotations. The Pride Parade, for instance, is a festival for the queer community where people take to the streets, fling colours of love and hug each other in solidarity.
Holi’s religious (and violently casteist) origins have been superseded by a purely cultural ritual of colour-smearing – with people across religions taking part. The spirit of Holi is best captured in Amir Khusro’s poetics of rang (colour), where he celebrates the tradition of Vrindaban. Like a poet in the tradition of the Braj Bhāshā, Khusro writes, “Gokul dekha, Mathura dekha… Par tosa nah koyi rang dekha re, main to aiso rang, Mahboob-I ilaahi (I have seen the face of Gokul, of Mathura… But nowhere have I seen a colour like yours, o’ the beloved of God).”
India’s secular character is proven by its calendar alone. March has Holi, Hazrat Ali’s birthday, the Parsi New Year, Shivaji Jayanti and a (one of many) Shaheed Divas or Martyr’s Day, commemorating the deaths of communist patriot Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru. April will bring Good Friday, Easter, Ambedkar Jayanti and Mahavir Jayanti.
Martyr’s Day, with no tie to religion, is celebrated by all Indians who have an emotional and political attachment to India’s anti-colonial struggle. Ambedkar Jayanti celebrates a social (and political) solidarity, primarily among Dalits who have experienced discrimination, but also among those who equally believe in a non-casteist future for Hindu society.
A festival, be it religious or secular, is also a way of being in the world – of opening the doors of the heart. It can connect one to joy and abandon – and even mourning; to that unalterable experience of cyclical time that exists (and returns) every year to break the monotony of the linear time of modernity, work and capitalism. A festival is, in many ways, a respite and critique of the shackles of linear time. If such time is one of ‘progress’ and productivity, the time of festivals is a relapse into the nonproductive excess of our emotions, our memories, our ties with childhood. Festivals are reminders of lost time.
India, as a nation, has its own official occasions – or festivals – to celebrate. Republic Day and Independence Day are central among them. Gandhi’s death, too, is mourned as Martyr’s Day on January 31. General elections can be considered a political festival of sorts in India’s democracy.
I must add, however, that I experienced the idea of an election as a festival for the first time in JNU, where every year a new students’ union is elected. After a whole day of voting in different schools, students gather around the place where results are declared after nightlong counting. You hear drums, slogans and animated conversations amidst snacks and tea stalls. It is JNU’s yearly political carnival – conducted in the most democratic manner and without the presence of security personnel (during my time). But times have changed.
In light of this culture, when the prime minister calls the coming elections a “festival of democracy”, one is compelled to raise a question: what defines festivals in India or anywhere in the world?
It is, fundamentally, the absence of hate.
A festival is not one if it harbours within the celebrators any feeling – individual or collective – of hate . If elections really are festivals of democracy, they have to symbolise a necessary democratic spirit: love that leaves no space for hatred.
In politics, you have rivals. There is no politics without rivalry. A festival of democracy that is political is bound to inhabit that culture of rivalry. But there is a big difference between rivalry and enmity. Rivals need not be enemies. Sportspersons know it better than politicians. Politicians need to learn it to restore dignity to politics.
Like all festivals of Indian democracy, elections need to be fought without allowing hate to poison hearts, minds and language. There is nothing democratic about the politics of hate. If Indian elections are to remain festive, hate – with its dangerous expectations – has to lose.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).