The Many Dimensions of Majoritarianism Beyond Religious Discrimination

Mediocrity is a key aspect of the majoritarian idea.

Majoritarianism is often only associated with discrimination of religious minorities. It undoubtedly is the most potent dimension of it, but there is more to majoritarianism. Majoritarianism, in essence, is about a perceived superiority and reclaiming arbitrary space and importance. It is therefore, in a fundamental sense, in conflict with ideas of republic and democracy.

Cultivating and manufacturing prejudice and hatred against religious minorities purportedly offers it the rhetorical legitimacy it needs, but majoritarianism does not stop with discriminating against the minorities, it cultivates and institutionalises a political culture of discrimination, arbitrariness and violence. In this other side of majoritarianism, it is equally terrifying for those it chooses as its enemies, and here it can pretty much be anyone who doesn’t serve its interests, perceived to be a threat to its arbitrariness and of course those who choose to actively resist it.

Majoritarianism necessarily requires a continuous demonstration of arbitrary power and submission of ideas, demands and identities that stand outside of it. Majoritarianism is akin to a war machine that does not end by bringing religious minorities into submission. In fact, history tells us that the targeted minorities are suppressed but what follows that is a longer history of suppression of other communities, identities, institutions, laws and procedures, individuals and their credibility, so on. It is a process of flattening out everything in order to sustain, often, a false sense and claim of superiority of culture, religion and individuals. It is necessary to understand majoritarianism in its manifold forms.

In India today, the Narendra Modi juggernaut began by bulldozing Muslims and explicitly targeting them. It is a process of threatening their physical security, their economic opportunities, social mobility and citizenship status. This gets reflected in electoral consent to whatever extent possible. However, majoritarianism does not stop here; it necessarily then moves to create a ‘wheels-within-wheels’ kind of politics and narrative.

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From Muslims, it moved on to create enemies ‘within’ through anti-national, tukde tukde, urban Naxal, Maoists, Kashmiris, the violence at Bhima Koregaon, and so on. Majoritarianism does not, again, stop with the perceived threat of internal enemies, it necessarily moves on given its institutionalised practice of arbitrariness and compulsion to demonstrate power, muscularity and masculinity.

From ‘internal enemies’, majoritarianism moves on to undermining institutional autonomy and the credibility of individuals associated with them. The current crisis of freedom of speech related to Prashant Bhushan and the credibility of judiciary and those associated with it is a necessary corollary of majoritarian psyche. The kind of unprecedented loss of credibility of the Supreme Court will only deepen. As has the credibility of Delhi police and its alleged biased ways in relation to Delhi riots.

There is very little need to talk about the media, academic institutions of higher learning, and other social organisations. They all become mirror images of each other. They are all run through a single logic – of majoritarianism – which no longer necessarily remains religious or cultural. They are often invoked but the process gathers its own determinism.

From evening out institutions, majoritarianism again necessarily encourages individual mediocrity. Mediocrity is a structural necessity of majoritarian culture. Talent and innovation rarely survive under cultural majoritarian regimes. Since the initial hypothesis of cultural majoritarianism is itself false and superficial, whether it is about superior ancient culture or about ‘clash of civilisations’, in order to maintain the veracity or in the process of maintaining the authenticity of such claims, the majoritarian system chooses/includes mediocrity and excludes independent talent.

It is clear today in almost all realms that the talent used and appointed to top posts is way below the pool of talent available. In fact, only those who are mediocre survive the system as they prove to be the most efficient agents, and all others are pushed into deafening silence, including those who remain ardent supporters. One has to only recall the struggle today to remember the names of ministers and their portfolios to understand what majoritarianism does, not just to those outside but also to those who remain at the core. One has to also recollect the number officials who resigned under the current regime, from economic advisor to officials of the RBI and more.

It is only by compromising one’s credibility and ‘sacrificing’ one’s image and talent that one becomes acceptable to the systemic movement of majoritarianism. The very process of building a monolithic order requires that individual talents and identities are completely subsumed under the tirade, it is not a happenstance. Not just individuals who stand to oppose but individuals who stand with the majoritarian structure and politics, too, experience extreme modes of insecurity and repression. This internalised repression too is as much a necessity as suppressing those who stand to oppose.

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The logic of majoritarianism that moves from external enemies to internal enemies, to the logic of institutional arbitrariness to individual mediocrity and suppression, then has the necessary impact on economy. Here again, the economic crisis that India is currently witnessing, apart from global slowdown and the COVID-19 crisis is essentially due to the current majoritarian ethos in the economy. It has led to excessive Centralisation, an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that industrialist Rahul Bajaj alluded to, and finally the inability of the current regime to envisage policies that are inclusive.

For instance, the economy today requires liquidity and purchasing power with the common people, but policy makers have steadfastly rejected this option, why? It is often interpreted as a necessity born out of neoliberal proclivities. While that may not be false, it is essentially because the majoritarian ethos disempowers the majority as a necessary part of disciplining society.

The migrant crisis and irreverent neglect was a part of the perceived process of disempowering and disciplining, which therefore also necessarily negates the option of basic income, increasing purchasing power, providing subsidies and so on. It will provide help only within the limits of disempowerment, discipline and patronage. Therefore, offering loans, as part of the atmannirbhar package is acceptable, but not basic income and new investments. Entitlements and rights are necessarily seen as antidotes to majoritarian ethos, they simply cannot coexist together. Rights and dissent make the majoritarian system and leaders associated with it vulnerable and less masculine.

The current economic crisis, and the general civic and social crisis, in fact grip the majority. This inclusion of the majority into a permanent crisis-ridden situation is, then, the necessary other side of majoritarianism.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.