For the common people, the blue-blooded, elite-bred and -schooled members across powerful unelected institutions joining hands should occasion a bigger concern than the vague spectre of fascism that the Left has been raising for over six decades
The Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women between ages 10 and 50 at the Sabarimala temple has divided the society like few verdicts in independent India have.
In many ways, the verdict and consequent protests against it would go down as a watershed event in the modern Indian discourse.
Sabarimala has divided the elite and masses on the lines of how they view the role of the judiciary and popular will itself. While the elite, the majority of whom tilt towards the Left-liberal orthodoxy, welcome the Supreme Court verdict as an affirmation of gender justice, the masses are nearly unanimous in their viewing this verdict as an encroachment upon their religion.
This is just one of the few incidents in the recent past in which the popular will, or the government which supposedly represents it, has clashed with the unelected institutions like the judiciary.
Apart from the judiciary, which is seen as intrusive and inconsistent by many Hindus in India, even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have had public differences with the NDA government.
And without exception, the elite — Lutyens' journalists, retired bureaucrats and academicians — have argued on behalf of the institutions, hailing them as the bulwark against raging majoritarinism.
Irrespective of which way you lean in this debate, there is no denying a subtext of a tussle for power between the elite and the masses whom the elite view as cheerleaders of majoritarianism. To understand the fear the masses strike in the hearts of India's elite is to understand the true nature of the class conflict in popular discourse.
To begin with, it is undeniable that the elite of the Left orthodoxy view democracy at best as a necessary nuisance which should be put up with only as long as it serves their agenda.
Every democratic verdict that has gone against them in the recent past has been met with scepticism around the system that delivered the verdict. In India, the issue of vote share of the winning coalition wasn't discussed when the Congress made a government with 145 seats in 2004, but it was used widely to undermine the people's verdict when the BJP won 282 seats in 2014.
Elsewhere in the world, journalists like Ishaan Tharoor wanted to impose an upper age limit on voters in the aftermath of Brexit. Similarly, Donald Trump's stunning win over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential polls in 2016 made the Left orthodoxy realise anew what an unfair system of election the electoral college is. This is one of the reasons why the Left prefers institutional control over electoral success. Why work hard to win the game when you can be unpleasant and demand a post facto change of rules?
However, result-wise these narratives are losing hold in the popular discourse. If you consider mainstream media as one of the largest, most influential and vocal representative of the elite, you will notice their ability to influence the discourse is possibly at its lowest in the history of modern journalism worldwide.
The common thread running through the Narendra Modi-led NDA's triumph in the 2014 general elections, Trump's win over Clinton in the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit was that in each of these instances, the country's elite led by the media backed the losing horse. In the Indian context especially, this has
proven to be catastrophic since the media derives a large part of its power as a broker of influences and connections more than distributor of news.
Social media has played a large role in this reversal. Apart from letting the common people call out the elite of mainstream media for their various inconsistencies and double standards, social media has also raised serious questions over the need of a full-time, highly paid, opinion maker. On many new age platforms, people from different walks of life, but with a passion for political and social issues, are presenting cogent arguments, refuting the media elite and (gasp!) they have found considerable traction among the masses.
It is interesting to see how this waning influence, rise of identity politics and media's shift away from the centre and towards the Left have all intersecting timelines.
There is no doubt that today's elite is far more towards the Left of centre than his counterpart from say 1990. However, this shift in media narrative has failed to produce a corresponding shift in the society as a whole, and that has only widened the fissures between mainstream media and the masses.
In that context, media's support of the Congress's 'saffron terror' rhetoric proved to be a costly strategic error. The masses saw the inconsistency of the Left-liberal orthodoxy in believing in the 'terror has no religion' (for instance Charlie Hebdo) and 'saffron terror' narratives and called them out.
This coupled with the increasing centralisation of media out of economic necessity meant that for geographically large countries like India and the US, a large part of the country was reported on by people who had no connect with the masses of that area. Just as in the US you have the east and west coast elite, in India almost all the leading opinion makers, as well as the elite they rub shoulders with, are located in Delhi or Mumbai. Even without ascribing agenda-driven motives, this has led to the gap between the media and the people they report on. For years, mainstream media had the monopoly on bandwidth of discourse and thus they could simply choose to ignore dissenting voices. But with the advent and popularity of social media, alas, this exit door was closed too.
Until now, the mainstream media has been taking the easy way out by 1) demanding greater curbs on social media and blaming it for even murders committed by those expressly opposed by them, like Barkha Dutt did in the aftermath of Shujat Bukhari's killing by Islamic extremists, 2) calling everyone with an opposing view point as a troll. But that could go on only for so long. When you are dealing in influences and connections, and when electoral politics is permanently slipping out of your grasp, accusing your opponent of viciousness might earn you some sympathy from your fellow champagne-sippers, but in terms of getting back into the battle it does zilch.
Enter the unelected institutions!
The attraction between Indian elite and unelected institutions is not difficult to understand. Both groups almost wholly consist of upper class, urban-bred, highly Westernised individuals, often coming from a handful of influential families who in all likelihood frequented the same events, attended the same parties, shared the same world view. Most importantly, the elite see the unelected institutions as their last line of defence. A fort insulated from the heat and dust of the electoral politics. A place where you need not defend your worldview, mostly because it is an 'entry by invitation only' place.
Before we go any further, let me make one thing completely clear — I completely support the need of a system of checks and balances and the concept of keeping certain areas out of the grasp of electoral politics. However, we also need to understand that any sphere in which two or more institutions share boundaries, certain amount of jurisdictional conflicts are not only inevitable but essential.
Ministers of the Modi government making remarks over the tussle between the government and judiciary or the government and RBI aren't egomaniacal despots about to usher in emergency. They are simply alert, politically accountable leaders who have to face an electorate in less than a year. Raising a spectre of fascism or emergency over this issue, or effectively ascribing all differences of opinion to moral turpitude of the other person amounts to, at least in this instance, an attempt to silence the voices of the people the elected government represents.
At the heart of this idea of 'unelected institutions as a watchdog of the elected government' is the Left orthodoxy's deep distrust of the people it aspires to rule over. One of the reasons the orthodoxy wish for the government to intrude in all areas of life is their fundamental faith in themselves being the moral arbiters of the society and holding that without their eternal vigil, the masses will let their base nature take over, thus plummeting the society into barbarism and savagery.
With coalition politics growing in importance in India in the past few years, the prospect of an elected government turning dictator has become less and less. The very fragmented nature of the polity and the democratisation of voices through social media are possibly the best checks on the concentration of power.
If this did not reflect in the 2014 general election results, then the blame for it must surely go to the dynasty-ruled Congress and its inability to produce a viable alternative to the BJP.
For a common person like you and I, the blue-blooded, elite-bred and -schooled members across powerful unelected institutions joining hands should occasion a bigger concern than the vague spectre of fascism that the Left has been raising for over six decades. There is nobody watching those who have taken it upon themselves to watch us, and the power that your vote carries means nothing in this context. If this doesn't ring alarm bells in your mind I don't know what will.
As Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." I rest my case.
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Last Updated Nov 13, 2018, 3:17 PM IST