Sunday, December 7, 2008

Democracy in India

Fifteen Theses

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

If democracy in India has not failed dramatically, this may not mean it has succeeded beyond question. Failures need not be absolute. The absence of one or more disasters in the short history of a democracy might screen from view some subtler and larger failure. Acknowledging the possibility of such a failure would require us to reconsider the very terms in which the public discourse of democracy is conducted.

If democracy is a particular “form of government”, the “form” may be still in good shape and yet all may not be well.

There is a danger in envisaging democracy as a state of affairs that comes to obtain for ever or long. The end of democracy does not necessarily mean, as Plato surmised, its replacement by some other form of government. Democracy may retain its form and yet have been undone. In the age of universal democracy, the real threat to democracies lurks within and in the realm of the universal. Hence the need to interrogate the popular truths of the time.

Democracy may be better thought of as a process without closure, in recognition of the inevitability of difference(s) (Bonnie Honig); as a “project” (Wolin 1996) that commits the citizenry to a democracy to come (Derrida); and as an “event” (Badiou and Ranciere) which can (be made to) recur sporadically and, every time, differently.

There is a link, though little explored, between the political democracy and the society, particularly the family. In a society where tradition remains strong, this link may be defined by a relationship of tension. Owing to the actual inseparability of the political and the social, the modern institution of political democracy and the traditional social institutions may coexist in unmitigated, albeit low-intensity, conflict. For instance, if the structures of the family happen to be authoritarian, these may haunt the political institution of democracy, tainting and even paralyzing it. On the other hand, for the political democracy to succeed it may be indispensable for the society at large to be democratized. Acceptance of democracy in the realm of the political does not necessarily entail its acceptance in the realm of the social. And that has consequences.

Pedagogies and poetics exercise a far greater force in the actual functioning of a democracy than is usually conceded. The pedagogic scenario, for instance, tends to be re-enacted on the stage of political democracy. In these times when the political can no longer be sliced off from the cultural, the “deliberative model” advocated by Habermas needs redefining in terms of the maximum cultural context. A communicative democracy is an affair of more than critical-rational exchange. As Iris Marion Young has suggestively pointed out, it should also include “greeting, rhetoric, and story-telling”. After all, for the demos, the critical rational discourse may not be the sole legitimate discourse. A democratic understanding of the discourse of democracy has to be undertaken as a task.

The aforementioned task, competently undertaken, can additionally help understand the short-circuiting of critical reason through demagoguery in which communication operates at sub-rational frequencies.

When free, hyper-competitive media co-exist with a feeble and atrophying public sphere, there is a risk of democracy being reduced to consumerism. In such a scenario, commodities may mask themselves as news and public issues. Democracy may then have entered the spectacle and gone to sleep. How does one wake it up when a waking might only be part of the dream? How does democracy return from the spectacle?

The essential vital energies of democracy can seek gratification by flowing into the channels of mass (tele-)bhakti culture, sapping democracy and feeding new fascisms.

“Inverted totalitarianism” as “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry” (Wolin 2008) finds convenient instruments in technologies of control, including those of entertainment.

A society needs to reflect, as a society, on the uses it would make of available technologies. A democratic society needs to do this all the more. The emerging information ecologies have the potential to inflict serious harm on the democratic political ecologies. Informationalism is more than an ideology of information. Information pollution can play havoc with democratic political ideologies. The latter may not be equipped to handle the overproduction of information by way of critique.

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) may turn out to be a mere metaphor for the very real Bio-Political Organization (BPO).

Democracy may breed a parallel political economy, not essentially different from a parallel economy and even symbiotically bonded with it. In a world in which the economic comes to occupy all visibility, the withering and demise of the political may go unnoticed. Democracy's shadow political economy may gradually eat up democracy. Wolin's “managed democracy” (2008) would be an inadequate conceptualization of the real thing. One can see and conceptualize the corporatist threat to democracy, but the witch's brew of shadow economy and shadow political economy, whether mixed or unmixed with corporatism, could be utterly invisible and blinding.

A democracy may need crises of the scale of disasters to feed on. Our democracy is hopeless!/Our only hope is democracy! Events such as the Kandhamal violence and the 2008 economic meltdown may simultaneously reveal that something is terribly wrong with our democracy and yet proclaim, with a weird ironic twist, that democracy alone can set things right.

Even democracies do not easily outgrow the urge to deliver shock treatment to people.

As the political events in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai indicate, democracy can become an inexhaustible source of alibis for exploitation by those in power for not acting decisively in people's interest.

The urgency to seek the causes of the concentration camp in the very structures of modern societies remains undiminished (Agamben). The loose usage of the term 'democracy' as a universal slogan requires monitoring and interrogation. Ceaseless endeavour to define 'democracy' with rigour and precision is necessary if democracy is not to slip into the abyss that yawns at the very heart of law.

Woks Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 36.
Badiou, Alain. “The Event in Deleuze.” Trans. Jon Roffe. Parrehesia 2 (2007): 37-44.
Beardsworth, Richard. Introduction. Derrida and the Political. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. xvi.
Benhabib, Seyla. Ed. Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. New Jersey: Princeton, 1996.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Three Normative Models of Democracy.” Behabib 21-30.
Honig, Bonnie. “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home.” Benhabib 257-77.
Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
Wolin, Sheldon S. “Fugitive Democracy.” Benhabib 31-45.
---. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalinarianism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton U P, 2008.
Young, Iris Marion. “Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy.” Benhabib 120-35.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

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