Pessimism is the opiate of activism. Optimism the aphrodisiac of the will. Most Indians committed to democracy and liberty will perhaps agree that many of the hallmark events of 2013 have saturated the year with pessimism. The will to oppose this has been noticeable by its absence.
Towards the very end of the year came a judgment from the Supreme Court that can only be interpreted as a direct assault on individual liberty and as a retreat into conservatism, where the latter almost merges into religious obscurantism. I refer, of course, to the observations of the apex court on Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This judgment, by overturning an existing verdict of the Delhi High Court, made homosexuality a crime and overnight turned homosexuals into criminals.
It is understandable that the Supreme Court did not want to step into the realm of the legislature, but it need not have “recriminalized” homosexuality by revitalizing an antiquated law. It could have let the Delhi High Court ruling stand and, at the same time, advised Parliament to revise Article 377. In its wisdom, the Supreme Court did not take this route.
What this law actually does is to give the State the power to oversee and interfere in the privacy of individuals, in fact to pry into their sexual activities. Apart from everything else, this enlarges the scope and the activities of the State. The Indian State, for all its democratic credentials, has a history of infringement upon individual liberties. One need not recall the grim days of the Emergency to record this history. Look at what has happened in more “normal” times: the use of the law of sedition against individuals who are charged with being involved in anti-national or anti-Indian activities; the indiscriminate tapping of telephones; the holding of people in prison without trial; the denial of bail to certain individuals; and also the curtailment of a number of intellectual freedoms like the circulation of certain items on the net. To this can be added the blatant attempt to monitor the sex lives of adults and to condemn some of them for their sexual preferences.
There is another issue in the making of public policy that is not being debated at all in India. Given the nature of India’s social and economic reality and the great inequalities that prevail, there is a very strong and justified case for enhancing and altering the activity of the State so that the latter can begin the work of reducing inequalities by increasing expenditure in the fields of public health, primary education, hygiene, housing and the provision of other necessities for the underprivileged. Given that any State has within it certain maximalist tendencies, and many of these tendencies have a conflict with individual rights and liberties, how does one curtail the State on the one hand and, on the other, permit it to expand its activities in the economic arena?
The question acquires a certain urgency because there is looming in the political horizon a regional leader with newly-acquired national ambitions. He believes, if his track record is to be taken as an indicator, in a strong State with the aim of being active in all spheres of public activity. Public opinion — or, at least, its urban articulation all over north India — seems to be in favour of this leader. He is seen as being decisive and driven by economic growth. Large sections of the middle class and the affluent are willing to overlook his social and religious views and that, under his stewardship, a province in India witnessed one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms.
It is difficult to convince such people of the dangers inherent in the advocacy of a powerful State led by a charismatic and decisive leader who has definite views on the status of religious minorities in India. Examples from the history of the 20th century are seen as irrelevant. There is another group of people who believe that economic growth, as measured by the GDP, is the be all and end all of public policy in India.
The rise of this leader must be placed in the particular context of the failure of governance over the last four years. It is a paradox that, as the ambit of the State in India has been enlarged, under some pretext, to limit individual rights and liberties, there has been, first, an abuse and, then, a paralysis of governance. There were many reasons for this. One related to the compulsions of coalition politics; a second was the presence of a prime minister who saw himself to be so much a prisoner of circumstances that he withdrew himself increasingly from decision-making and public pronouncement; and a third was the role the president of the Congress cast herself in — a role in which there was the power to influence policy-making without any responsibility for the implications of the policies she pursued and imposed on the government. The accumulated result of this, as election results have demonstrated, is a complete collapse of trust in India’s oldest political party. It has scripted its own obituary.
One consequence of this collapse is the rise of a political formation that has emerged from within civil society. Conceived as a forum to expose and fight corruption, the Aam Aadmi Party is now a political force that some see as a beacon for the future. The evolution of the AAP will be watched closely as will be its capacity to deliver on its promises. Its propensity to ignore or underplay existing political institutions will be the source of worry for all who are committed to democracy in India.
This year has thus, in many ways, been one of gloom. It has seemed as if there is so little to be done to check the maximalist tendencies of the State, the gradual but definite erosion of the rule of law, the steady curtailment of individual rights and liberties and the triumphant tone of majoritarianism. Not that there have not been individual voices of protest. One thinks here, immediately, of Vikram Seth’s cri de cœur against the judgment on Article 377; of voices raised against encounter killings and atrocities in Kashmir and the Northeast. But these seem to be lost in the overwhelming smugness of the political class, and its refusal to think beyond vote-garnering and its own limited interests and constituencies. The larger vision appears to have disappeared.
It runs against the grain to lose hope. To survive, we hope against hope — to borrow from the title of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiography, written in the engulfing darkness of Stalin’s Russia. It needs courage to hope.