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Are Majoritarian Societies as Powerful as they Appear?

What can and cannot work as an alternative strategy to the fear and violence generated by majoritarian regimes.
Are Majoritarian Societies as Powerful as they Appear?

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Outlook India

Democratic and political institutions in India have collapsed under the weight of majoritarian rule faster than one had imagined. To make sense of this collapse and grapple with how things can be set right requires a deeper understanding. It is often argued that institutions such as the judiciary, police, investigative agencies, media and various constitutional offices have fallen in line because of fear and intimidation. This is right, but insufficient to explain their sudden surrender.

A better explanation seems to be that institutions are run by humans who are motivated by their imagination and moral righteousness to implement rules that are always, as a rule, open and never closed to interpretation. The interpretation of rules could be self-referential, as it is in a legal-rational framework, but still leave more space open for subjective interpretation in communitarian societies.

By this logic, moral authority is a necessary element in running institutions in India and this holds good for everything else. In the current moment, moral authority is being wielded by a majoritarian imagination. The police, judges and media personnel are to a great degree convinced of the need for a majoritarian backlash, also because of the social composition of these institutions. Judges, police and the media are also thinking like “good Hindus”. They, too, feel this is what nationalism means.

The second aspect is an important feature that has made institutions vulnerable, which is the modus operandi of majoritarian politics. Majoritarianism makes the dominant section claim victimhood. It therefore works on a narrative of protecting and providing benefits to those who already have all the privileges and protection within the legal constitutional procedures laid out. How, then, is it possible to demonstrably protect and privilege those who are already enjoying these advantages? This can, by necessity, happen only by extending extra-constitutional protection exclusively to those who belong to and carry out the majoritarian agenda. So, Kapil Mishra’s open claim to unleash violence is pitted against those who are opposed to violence, and it is Mishra who gets all the protections while the others are charge-sheeted. Here, it is actually violent to talk of inter-religious harmony and nationalistic to talk of violence. This underlying political logic pushes an unseen moral pressure that requires breaking the law and offering protection. Those who want to stick to procedures need an equally strong-willed moral logic to counter this pressure.

It would not be impossible to argue that large sections of the police, judiciary and media are, to a great extent, convinced, or do not find a compelling logic to counter this moral pressure. Of course, personal interests, dishonesty and fear do their bit to strengthen the majoritarian juggernaut. Hence, it may be necessary to make distinction between those who seem to fall in line because they are thoroughly convinced of the moral content of majoritarianism, and those who are plain dishonest. It is clear that some TV anchors who overplay and exaggerate events in their shows belong to the latter half—dishonest talkers, while those quietly working their way could be convinced by the prevailing majoritarianism.

It is difficult to change the dishonest lot, but the moot question is could those working under moral pressure change over time, if they realise that those at the helm of affairs are not really invested in protecting anyone or fulfilling an ideological project but in preserving power? Or, are these two dimensions—the dishonest and the convinced—too closely tied to arrive at a moment of neat separation?

This question applies as much to scores of full-time RSS workers. How does one understand the commitment of many of these young pracharaks who seem to be working without expecting much in return? Do they work relentlessly and anonymously out of commitment or because it resonates with their moral world-view or their social position? Are all of them convinced of the fraud being committed on law or do they actually see it “differently”—not as fraud but necessity?

From my somewhat limited interactions with those working with the RSS, it seems that all these differentiated levels seem to collapse in them. They begin with a real sense of moral corruption under the influence of popular narratives, personal incidents in their family, the influence of cinema, and a growing discomfort with material pursuits. The narrative the RSS offers then attracts them. It is in the later stages that they become confused, when much of what is done in the name of “Hindus” and “the nation” does not corroborate their experiences. Here, a majority take the more pragmatic view and their commitment also wavers between pragmatic claims and provisional distancing.

The RSS allows this space by remaining a semi-secretive organisation. There is only a small section that can begin to understand the blatantly immoral character of majoritarian politics, even if they continue to believe that those with other religious pursuits are equally immoral and untrustworthy.

Many involved with the RSS, therefore, face a phase of nihilism, of not finding meaning in what they do, but still continuing to work either due to lack of clarity or because they believe that commitments must be permanent and inconsistency is a vice, or even from an inability to face the guilt. This process holds true for those outside the RSS too, but being in the RSS also means getting support through their institutional positions. There cannot be a single narrative to persuade this section to rethink; an equally powerful moral logic needs to be generated that makes the universalist pretensions of majoritarianism look shallow.

It is for this reason that majoritarian polities, which look at one stage to be very powerful and insurmountable, also collapse like a pack of cards. Majoritarian polities always collapse, they rarely disintegrate. It is this constant possibility that guides the subconscious of those involved in it, even those who assume leadership positions within it. This creates an abyss of anxiety and disproportionate reliance on violence and unleashing fear. They are actually externalising the fear that is internal to them. They always work with a “point-of-no-return” psyche and this is what makes reasoning with them near-impossible. At least being aware of this maze of complexity that underlies majoritarian politics will tell us what can and what cannot work as an alternative strategy.

The author is associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.

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