Politics has always been the most trending and simultaneously heated discussion across the country, always. Hardly any other conversation holds the potential to severe ties of decades and pit one ideologue against the other.
It is an all-encompassing array of stories of economics, ideologies, power, psychology, and money- across the state and the country. Almost every other adult seems to have varying and pressing opinions on them, seen through their lens and asserted with firm conviction.
Facts are in abundance. Interpretation is the key. So most of us come in terms with facts quite easily in this age of technology, but hardly a few can decipher their true meanings, connect the dots and analyze the cause and effect relationship and unearth the true significances.
Most of this news is often acquired from media sources and the common citizens are often seen parroting the analysis seen on television screens or read on social media or shared through it. This, understandably, lends the media huge leverage to turn the opinions of common masses in favor or disfavor of an ideology.
Neutrality or unbiasedness is as rare a commodity as any and centralist (standing in no support of either) viewpoints rarely earn appreciation.
In conversation with Professor Ajay Gudavarthy, someone who has been a leading political theorist, analyst, columnist, and even if all of us are inherently biased, someone who has been largely neutral in analyzing the current political discourses.
-Given the current developments, could one argue that secularism is dead and is no longer relevant in India?
Secularism has a long and complex history in India. Unlike the West, it never was meant to create a strict separation between state and politics. It instead meant many things at various points in time including equal treatment of all religions,
principled distance, and protection of minority religions through personal laws. Secularism attempted the impossible of restricting state intervention, yet deploys legal means to protect religious practices. It was, perhaps, a historical exigency that led to this kind of an anomalous imagination, given the immediacy of partition. What it resulted over a period of time was a sense of ‘historical injury’ in a section of the majority Hindu population. It was seen as an unfair constitutional intervention in Hindu faith-based practices, and ‘privilege’ and protection of minority religious practices. What the current regime is attempting is to upturn that, and therefore they legislated on Triple Talaq as a case of individual justice and simultaneously argued that women entering or not into Ayappa temple in Kerala is about faith and not law. This conscious process of mineralization of Hindus in India created a dissonance between constitutional morality and popular beliefs. There was no conscious cultivation of secular ethos, it was only restricted to Courts and governments, and today popular believes have taken over constitutionalism, and we are moving towards a majoritarian democracy.
-How can the spirit of secularism be revived back in India?
Secularism needs to be imagined not as a legal-Constitutional practice but it is essentially about popular social ethos. What common Hindus and also other religions believe in their everyday life. It essentially means the ability to trust and respect followers of other religions. It needs active everyday interaction, common public sphere, dialogue, and the ability to co-exist with differences. Secularism in this sense is a fairly loaded ideal of composite living, mutual empathy, and compassion. Not just religious groups but secular identities of caste, gender, and progressive-left politics in India only managed, around the discourse of secularism, to produce a sectarian logic of ghettoized imagination, where each caste, religion, and nationality imagined strict boundaries without mutuality. I refer to this in my writings as ‘Secular Sectarianism’. anti-caste politics in India questioned the hegemony of those above but rarely demonstrated empathy to those below. Spirit of secularism would mean reversing this process of ghettoization and replacing it with a social ethos of standing and fighting for each other’s rights.
-What would be the place of religion in it?
Religion is a powerful social institution and it will continue to be relevant. Sociologist Ashish Nandy makes a useful distinction between religion-as-ideology and religion-as-a way of life. Some in his generation believed in the composite nature of Hinduism and other religious practices. This certainly was an exaggerated assessment. We need to approach religious identities outside of state and politics and fuse them with everyday social practices. For instance, we could imagine common neighborhood schools where children of all religions get socialized and overcome mutual prejudices.
-There is a general inclination towards the right around the world. Are the liberals and seculars lacking in a narrative then?
There are many reasons why the Conservative-Right is on the ascendance. I have written extensively on this, including my book India After Modi: Populism and the Right (2018). But the most potent among it is its recognition that people at large require culture as holding onto myths and creating meaning. As human beings, we require a story to imagine our lives and we need meaning to what we do and why we do. The right has succeeded in creating a myth of a glorious past and a grand future and even created meaning to make sense of suffering. We suffer consequences of demonetization for a cleaner society; we light diyas during the pandemic in greater solidarity.
Left-Liberals due to their
secular understanding mistake all of this to be regressive and superstitious. Historian Yuval Noah Harari says human beings think in terms of stories. We need a human story. Left-liberals need to create new myths of solidarity and social mobility. Neoliberal reforms have seriously restricted that scope, while Right is creating a cultural sense of togetherness, even if it blocks social mobility, and it is on this contradiction in Right`s narrative that progressives need to build an alternative narrative, instead of debunking myth and meaning itself as a Rightist mode of pursuing politics and mobilization. We need myth but of a different kind. We need a meaning but of a more composite kind. Cultural forms have to be used, and not think all of culture is only about being conservative.
-Is Capitalism always a foe and never a friend? Is Socialism the only alternative to it? Is this relevant to India?
Historically Capitalism created wealth at an unprecedented scale, as it also created inequalities and ecological disasters. Capitalist modernity, therefore, has liberated us from many rigid social hierarchies but also created new kinds of power and exclusions and violence. It made great technological advances but made life too technocratic. The market is a necessary institution but the marketization of every aspect of life destroys ethics of cooperation that even capitalism requires and this is where Socialism is still relevant as a philosophy of cooperation. During the pandemic and before it were doctors from Cuba who rendered free services to many countries across the globe. This idea of internationalism is the beauty of Socialism but it is driven by state, it got bureaucratised and just like secularism it was dependent way too much on state and got too sectarian. We can see this in India too that Left politics stands for all social groups and equality but gets too quickly sectarian and cannot tolerate any ‘difference’. We need socialism as popular social ethos and this is by no means an easy task, at the moment we are moving exactly in the opposite direction.
-Why are politics moving away from grand ideologies to become so personality-centric across the globe?
This is the aftermath of declaring the ‘end of ideology’ and
end of history. Neoliberalism has made everything else look irrelevant with its ideas of growth and development but it does not mean there is no relevance of ideas. It is just that we are struggling to create s new imagination that has a mass appeal and that is more potent than growth and development. It is this vacuum that personality-centric politics is occupying. Personality is creating a new hope of delivering something dramatic. There is always a reason why people make such choices of trusting things. Here since no new imagination is available, they decided to trust individual traits to deliver better lives.
There are other complex reasons for the current moment globally that can be referred to as
Age of Emotions. Here, I see, a dual movement of people wanting to express emotions in public but also does not want the vulnerability that emotions bring with them. We are witnessing a transition in the way we are relating to our emotions largely due to technocratic and technological interventions. Technology has given us confidence but robbed us of primordial emotions. It is this struggle that is getting expressed in the adoration of personalities of Trump, Modi, Erdogan, and Putin. All of them emote and allow for emotions in public without the vulnerability that emotions bring. More social security and less anxiety will allow people to look within and stop being externally aggressive.
-Finally, where do you see Indian democracy in the near future?
Indian democracy has had its share of ups and downs. What we are witnessing today is by far the most ominous of them with a muscular state and a totalitarian vision. We need to focus more on the reasons why people are consenting to such a design. Part of it could be force, intimidation, and manipulation but greater part of it is due to consent. If people stop consenting no amount of force will help a regime survive. Democracy requires diversity and dissent, as it also requires solidarity and compassion. If opposition parties and social activists can offer a new imagination, people will trust. To that extent, the Right has compelled us out of complacency and forced us to think afresh.
This concluded the brilliant and intellectually magnificent interview.
Michael J. Sandel, Professor at Harvard University Law school often has popularly discussed how reshaping a democratic debate often helps in revealing the bigger concerns that politicians face.
At a time when religion has become the cornerstone of analysis for theorists and psephologists alike, understanding how it stands and how it shall span out in the future becomes important. It is also suggested to change the entire approach in which political debates or discussions are conducted throughout the length and breadth of the country so as to accommodate a more academic, analytical and theoretical approach to all of them and to pause the drama and blame-game that mirrors the image of a modern Parliament.
Now that a multidisciplinary and flexible education system has finally replaced the former one, pervading ideological divide, an alteration in the method of understanding and talking common politics among political science enthusiasts may be well within the realms of expectation and it is incumbent upon the students and professors alike to take the responsibility and spread it among others.