City City Bang Bang, Columns

A quiet democracy?

Two distinct kind of stirrings preceded the 2014 elections. The first had to do to with finding a way out of the air of hopelessness surrounding the country that the UPA through its lacklustre performance had managed to contrive. This vacuum was filled with flamboyant ease by Narendra Modi, who for the first time in memory, spelled out a vision for enabling prosperity rather than combating poverty. He connected powerfully with a country that had begun to experience a better present and wanted to be assured of a dramatically improved future.

But there was another kind of expectation too, which was for a newer kind of democratic engagement. The manner in which the urban middle class in particular had responded to the Anna Hazare -led movement and then to the AAP, before it lost its way, was a clear sign that it was disillusioned not merely with the UPA government but with the political establishment as a whole. There was a feeling that the names of the rulers had changed, as had the means by which they ascended the throne, but they continued to act as rulers, not representatives of the people who elected them.

The current government under PM Modi continues to act on the first front but is there even an attempt to deliver a new kind of democracy? On the face of it, it does not seem so. No attempt has been made to cut back on the visible signs of power that those even faintly brushed by it revel in demonstrating. The sirens, the immunity from rules, and the ads with photographs of ministers all continue exactly as before. If anything, PM Modi’s visage is omnipresent, as it accompanies every trivial development in every state and ministry, along with that of the concerned CM or Minister (with photographs that are appropriately smaller). There is no attempt to alter the nature of the political discourse, nor to trim its trappings. In that sense, the Modi government is no different from the previous regime, and from other political imaginations that dominate the landscape.

But that reading might be a bit incomplete, for some things have changed. As has been extensively reported and speculated upon, there seems to have been a significant re-ordering of the power equation between the PM and his ministers. The role of the individual Cabinet ministers seems to have been curtailed, with a lot of decisions, including some minor everyday kind of calls appearing to need the final nod of the PMO. This column had argued earlier that a kind of obedience training appears to be applied to the system, one where it is being made clear as to who the boss is and what the new rules of the game are.

Perhaps the most astutely imagined instrument that has been put in place is the monitoring of attendance and punctuality. By instilling fear on this front and by making it a subject of public accountability, the bureaucracy and the political arm of the government are both being brought to heel. Nothing converts a power wielding autocrat into white knuckled schoolboy submission like the idea of attendance and punctuality. For what it does is to reduce the idea of the work that the individual puts in into nothing more than presence, and that too at the allotted hour. It punctures pretensions to importance by imposing a standard of such meagre sufficiency that almost anyone can pass muster, provided he or she falls in line. Visibility of compliance serves to produce an aura of discipline. The fact that on October 2, it was important for everyone to be pictured employing a broom underlines this- it did not matter if the exercise was often transparently perfunctory for at least part of the intention was met by the visibility of the tokenism. The great insight at work here is that compliant discipline is best manufactured at the altar of trivialness. The military understands this as do schools and business organisations- which is why they place so emphasis on the smallest unit of behaviour- things like attire, grooming and an enforced formality of language.

Add to this, systematic acts of surveillance that reportedly create doubt and anxiety about the appropriateness of one’s behaviour (who one meets, what one wears where and so on) and you have a system of keeping control that can be extremely economical and efficient. The Modi strategy seems to be to keep the external paraphernalia of power intact while hollowing out power of a more real kind. The externally powerful are, by all accounts, being made to feel a sense of powerlessness, brought about by a combination of schoolmasterly discipline and random acts of authority that maintain an air of uncertainty.

The model depends leverages an act of democracy into an assertion of absolute authority — at the heart of this model lies Narendra Modi’s ability to connect directly to voters and to earn their confidence. The apparatus employed by him uses media in a way that makes the party organisation and network irrelevant to a large degree. Modi becomes the one-man vote machine on whom the entire party relies; in turn he exercises power over the party in a way that is unprecedented for the BJP.

The voters wanted a new mode of democracy and they have got it, although it is a version that is new to them. Modi’s model of democracy begins with democracy but instead of giving the electorate a greater say in governance, asks them to trust him to deliver the same. It is a high risk strategy but so far, the voters seem to have responded well, unused as they are to a politician taking on greater responsibility. But it also means that no overhaul of the political culture is at hand. Modi will use the politics of the day to his advantage, but will not challenge it directly. As things stand, he doesn’t need to.

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