If there is one feature that marks 2020, it has to be the idea of protest. From Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the US to worldwide attempts to ‘decolonise’ academia, there has been a virtual epidemic of protests globally. The context has varied but everywhere real or imagined grievances have erupted, challenging the established order. But at the end of the year, the ledger is more or less even. ‘Revolutionary instincts’ for all their rage have been halted in their tracks. Perhaps the epidemic played a role or perhaps the political conjuncture permitted only that much of change. India, too, had its share of upheaval.
When three ordinances dealing with agricultural reforms were passed in June, they attracted little notice. The tribe of political watchers made some sundry comments to the effect that the Narendra Modi Government was issuing too many ordinances, but that was about it. At that time there was no sign of the political tumult that was to engulf the National Capital Territory some months later. But when farmers from Punjab marched to Delhi in late November, pundits were quick to draw attention to another protest that had rocked Delhi late last year: the Shaheen Bagh protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that allegedly discriminates against Muslim citizens. By December, analysts were describing the farmers camping on the outskirts of Delhi as “Shaheen Bagh raised to the power n”. Suddenly, the Modi Government was facing the perfect political storm.
The economic aspect of the farmers agitation has been discussed threadbare by commentators: it is all about securing the privileges of a very small number of farmers across the country. That is a sufficiently small number to make collective action feasible: most of the farmers are from Punjab, most are Jat Sikhs, and speak the same language. The organisational costs involved in coordination are very low. But there is another, ignored, feature of the situation: this mass gathering of farmers has given an opportunity to activists and political entrepreneurs who have found it hard to do politics in an environment unfavourable to them. If it is a perfect storm for the Government, it is a perfect opportunity for activists and politically sidelined individuals.
Understanding the farmers’ protest and the Shaheen Bagh protest requires that one abandon the ‘reasons’—economic hardship and political discrimination based on religion—peddled by analysts and intellectuals. Economic hardship of Punjab’s farmers is a spurious argument that can be dismissed right away. The real reasons are to be found in the political instruments forged long ago in India and the conjunctures when they are used. Both point to a disquieting conclusion.
One bequest of Gandhian politics is the amorphous set of strategies it made available for action against authority. Forged in the decades of anti-colonial struggle, they are unique in the world for their ability to chip away at rule of law on the basis of ‘moral force’. Satyagraha was designed to corner the British. In independent India, it mutated into a clutch of tactics that ranges from fasts geared to persuade the powers that be (anshan) all the way to the anarchical edge inherent in Satyagraha: hartal, dharna, bandh and all the combinations possible between them. Whatever be their impact on colonial politics—which is debatable—their effect in independent India was extremely limited in terms of outcomes. There is a good explanation for that. Short of an insurrection involving all constituent parts of Indian society in its caste, regional and religious elements, these tactics could never work at the national level. The organisational effort requires coordination and collective action on a scale that all but rules out this as a mode of political change in a country of subcontinental size. But this has not made the idea unfashionable.
There is, however, a twist, one that is not of Gandhian provenance but a leftist one. This was thought through and put into practice in the 1970s. The weakness of these tactics was not lost on those who thought in terms of ‘extreme’ methods to dislodge lawfully elected governments. What is possible with these methods is to paralyse the functioning of government by mass strikes, sit-ins on arterial roads and more imaginative tactics. These are lineal descendants of Gandhian non-cooperation. What Modi has been facing for the last one year are ‘protests’ based on this template. The farmers’ ‘protest’ and the one against the CAA launched at Shaheen Bagh in December 2019 fit this pattern. These are, however, extra-constitutional tactics that have been dignified by the term ‘protest’. In reality, they are a very different species of political action.
Structurally, it is possible to envision what is going on from two different perspectives. One is to view the relative political position occupied by these actions in the range that encompasses coups, elections and revolutions. This is an ideological spectrum where coup lies on the extreme right, democracy stands in the centre and revolution rests on the extreme left. One can debate the merit of such labels but, historically, revolutions have mostly been a leftist phenomenon even if there are notable conservative exceptions like the religious revolution of 1979 in Iran. There can be other examples as well. A revolution, generally, is considered a mass affair with the ‘people’ as a category being its driving force. A coup, in contrast, is usually understood in its very restricted, military, sense of the expression. But if one extracts the kernel of the phenomenon—a sudden power grab—it is not necessarily an exclusively military affair. It can be based on a variety of devices that paralyses the functioning of a government.
The other conception can be sketched in terms of sheer numbers involved in political change. Here, elections represent the edge with the highest level of mass participation. This is the side of democracy. As one progressively moves towards receding levels of participation, one first encounters revolution and then, finally, coup as forms of political change. Irrespective of the political colour of the change or its ideological hue, theorists of this form of politics—Carl Schmitt, Vladimir Lenin and Edward Luttwak—ruled out queues of people waiting calmly for their turn to deposit pieces of paper in a box.
The danger is not another democratic breakdown but anarchy settling in. This will cloud India’s economic and political future. Modi can weather this agitation using a strategy of attrition
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Where do the farmers’ protest and that against the CAA lie in these conceptions? If one parses the statements of the leaders and ideologues of these agitations—and the latter are mostly urban, Delhi and Mumbai-based—they imagine themselves as harbingers of some kind of revolution. Democracy is ruled out as this is a non-electoral mobilisation. One can quibble about the meaning of democracy and these ideologues and their supporters have expended considerable energy in expanding its definition as ‘participation and mobilisation between elections’. But that is more or less meaningless as democracy, understood properly, is a method of representation: direct or indirect. Hence, seen from either perspective—in terms of numerical participation or in terms of the political location of what is being attempted—these protests veer closer to the coup corner. In any case, the backers of these protests don’t care for labels: those are empty classifications for pettifogging analysts and journalists. What matters is the drive to power. If elections have failed them, let it be something else.
Historically, such methods have severely damaged democracy in India. By legitimising agitation as a means of political change, they have ensured that anarchy remains an ever-present threat in the midst of democracy. This has had pernicious consequences. It has built a constituency that permanently doubts democracy and, over time, has made strong Central governments ideologically acceptable. Those who rue the weakening of India’s federal character ought to carefully examine the historical record and results of agitations and the lawlessness that accompanies them. It is erroneous to demonise ‘strong leaders’ and the Indian electorate when the actual blame ought to lie elsewhere.
In this context, it is instructive to take a hard look at two agitations in 1974—the Navnirman Andolan and the railway strike—which were couched in terms similar to the farmers’ ‘protest’ and the one against CAA. Both agitations were carried out for securing ‘people’s interests’, and those of students and railwaymen. At that time, too, there was a ‘strong’ leader who had a commanding majority in Parliament. The opposition then, as now, had lost traction with the Indian masses. A series of economic adversities—crop failure, external shocks, inflation—created the ground for agitations based on interests of groups like students. Thereafter, the political momentum led to a series of mistakes by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, culminating in the suspension of democracy. The historical debate on the subject is polarised: it is fashionable to fully apportion blame for the destruction of Indian democracy to Indira Gandhi or wholly blame the agitations for the events that led to the proclamation of Emergency. That binary debate need not detain us: what needs to be appreciated is the danger inherent in agitation as a mode of political change.
Since 2014, when Narendra Modi became prime minister, it has been fashionable to speak of the danger he poses to democracy. Some analysts and intellectuals have also deployed the expression ‘Emergency’ in describing what they ‘observe’. But it ought to be noted that, since 2014, Modi has not touched the struts that hold Indian democracy in place. Viewed dispassionately, the loss of institutional and political traction for opposition parties, intellectuals, NGOs (‘civil society’) has its roots in their own weakness and the changing ideological preferences of Indians. The farmers’ protest and that against CAA are now viewed as the ideal opportunity to use agitation to dislodge Modi by paralysis. There is a danger here that these ideologues and leaders don’t appreciate. And it is not the possibility of another ‘Emergency’.
A direct comparison between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi is best left to dispassionate and careful historians and there are none to be found in the ranks of those who analyse India. But two major, and vital, differences ought to be noted. One, by 1975, eight years had elapsed since the Congress lost steam at the state-level. Political scientists like Myron Weiner by then had noted the erosion in the party’s organisational effectiveness. In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under Modi, Amit Shah and now JP Nadda, is on the ascendant, expanding into those zones where it had no presence before 2014. Politically, the prime minister is not in a weak position in any way. Two, if the hope among those championing the agitation is for Modi to make some political errors and thus give them more space, it is unlikely. Anyone who has bothered to observe his track record will see that he has gone from strength to strength in election after election. Why would he endanger the basis of his success? It is notable that he has won two General Elections back-to-back, forming governments without the messy compromises that accompany coalition governments. It will defy political rationality that a leader at the peak of his popularity, backed by a well-oiled party machine and widespread ideological acceptability would break the system.
The danger is not another democratic breakdown but anarchy settling in as a feature of democracy in India. This will cloud India’s economic and political future. Modi, as a confident leader, can and will—if pushed to a wall—weather this agitation using a strategy of attrition. But if he is unlikely to take steps that weaken democracy, the groundswell in favour of authoritarian government will rise. Unlike 1975 when democracy was felled by the stroke of an individual’s pen, this time the masses may reject it. That is the paradox of this so-called democratic upsurge on the outskirts of Delhi. This danger is not appreciated by the activists and political entrepreneurs who back the farmers. The danger to democracy comes from them and not an allegedly authoritarian leader. It is interesting to note that the meaning of ‘Emergency’ has now been twisted out of shape to even include the normal exercise of executive authority. It has parallels in the West where Donald Trump was described as a ‘fascist’ even if that term is meaningless when applied to an individual.
It is difficult to foresee what will happen to the farmers’ agitation. There is every likelihood now that they will continue to lay siege to Delhi in an attempt to paralyse Modi’s Government into submission. But as noted earlier, applying agitation as a method to dislodge the Union Government is unlikely to work. It is also hard to see what the Government will do, now that the number of farmers on the outskirts of Delhi is in the thousands. A forcible eviction will be messy and violent. The time for that has passed. At the moment, the Government, its ministers and the BJP’s machinery are on a communications drive to convince Indians that they are right politically and economically. This is a message that farmers from Punjab—pampered and made rotten to their core—don’t want to listen to. Ultimately, this will be their undoing. And it should be.