The place of ethics that brings a sense of mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation in a democracy is pivotal but not self-evident. They come to the fore in times of crisis. In not cowing down, Rahul Gandhi is bringing back the focus on the place and significance of ethics for democracy. In doing this, he is certainly swimming against the tide.
Democracies have become transactional and pragmatic modes of collective bargaining. Ironically with greater democratisation, liberal procedures and institutions have begun to look at best as weak and at worse as hindrances to the social mobility of the marginalised. In all of this, ethics represented in and as ‘constitutional morality’ have become a casualty, and it has begun to look as if it served nobody’s interests and failed to represent particular interests. There emerged a generic distrust of institutions and a dislike for the political elites. In fact, a nonchalant attitude to politics developed as politics stopped reflecting the life stories as it did a few decades back before the ‘neoliberal consensus’.
It was in this context that Narendra Modi emerged as a ‘return of the repressed’ with a trumped-up claim of a larger-than-life image. Modi brought back the debate on the relationship between democracy and ethics. He spoke of the good and evil, sacred and profane, and the right and wrong that found expression in the hyper-politicised language of nationalism, majoritarianism, and authoritarianism.
Good, sacred, and right were redefined in the majoritarian context. The noise and narrative of majoritarianism were based on trumped-up historical claims and non-existent threats to the majority, but it was the generic discontent and disillusionment that provided the necessary scaffolding for hysterical majoritarianism. It was a certain kind of projection and transference of crisis into a cultural language. Discontent turned into Hindu ‘historical injury’ and insecurity, and uncertainty of the future became fodder for hyper-nationalist assertions.
Modi began by laying claim to a new set of ethics of representing the sacred, saaf niyat, and sabka saath but soon slipped into compulsive dependence on toxic majoritarian rhetoric. The trust gained by Modi in claiming positive ethics of civil solidarity and providing a deep sense of cultural belonging was relentlessly mobilised to push the population groups to a point of no return and lock their support and worldview to a majoritarian outlook.
Majoritarian governance and opposition
From demonetisation to the NRC-CAA to the pandemic, all of them were signified in majoritarian discourse and targeting of religious minorities. It partially worked but people did not lock themselves and extend unconditional support as it was and continues to be imagined. The test of unconditional support is the support for exceptional measures, even if they meant hurting the collective interests as it did with demonetisation or with the sudden lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have now moved to the next logical phase in majoritarian governance which is providing extreme alternatives and near-complete polarisation. A majoritarian worldview requires constant pushing to the extremes, so as to make it difficult for people to recalibrate their choices. Social polarisation reached one extreme with the use of bulldozers. The more extreme the measures the more silent the majority becomes. From active consent, it slips into tacit consent expressed as silence and followed by self-imposed indifference.
A similar strategy used for social polarisation is being extended now to political polarisation in the visible attempt to invisibilise the opposition. For the opposition to gain momentum and support, people have to go out of their way to express their support for the opposition and dissent against the current regime. Such a strategy is based on the understanding that people no longer are inspired to be mobilised in large numbers in conditions of extremity. Whatever little mobilisation is possible is shunted down through fear, legal actions, and impending threats of physical violence. It becomes difficult to gauge if there is no support for the opposition or if there are no avenues for dissent. As it happened during the pandemic, migrants walking back had no avenues to register their protest.
The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi is based on the understanding that people will not protest and it will get gradually normalised and opposition will begin to look weak and irrelevant. Projecting the opposition as weak is buttressed by the hyper-presence of Modi in everyday hyperbolic campaigns and advertisements, accompanied by grandstanding claims of development and welfare work.
The choice is between an omnipresent leader and an opposition pushed to the margins. The opposition is vulnerable because transactional relations rarely inspire mass protests. The opposition failed to mobilise street protests because Modi is prepared to deliver the basic minimum that the opposition would deliver if it gets back to power. What is so inspiring to stand behind the opposition?
In such a context, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was an exception. It took us back to the days of mass street mobilisation. It reflected the possibility of mass mobilisation and spontaneous response to bring back a semblance of a discourse on the indispensability of ethics of cooperation and mutuality to have a functional democracy. The yatra did well in spite of the near-complete absence of Congress’ organisational presence on the ground.
The costs of supporting an alternative to the current regime are now steep. To stand by a marginalised opposition and a struggling leader cannot be a pragmatic choice. It has to have an ethical quotient that may or may not translate into concrete benefits. Democracies often come full circle. Modi was proactive in mobilising ethics beyond self-interest around a narrative of nationalism, suffering as sacrifice during demonetisation and the pandemic, and dignity around the assertion of religious identities.
Can these silently underlying ethics be mobilised today outside the majoritarian context? Religion and nationalism provided inspiration in times of transactional banality and neoliberal pragmatism. Whether intended or not Rahul Gandhi is appealing to the ethical sentiments on the ground. This churning around ethics is good for democracy whether Congress and Rahul Gandhi succeed or not in counter-mobilisation. People could make such a choice in 1977 after the period of the Emergency. It was an ethical choice to oust Indira Gandhi. It is a similar choice people are being asked to make but in a vastly different historical context that is far more pragmatic. If Rahul Gandhi succeeds, he would have turned a page in history but even if he fails it is an attempt worth making.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.