Saturday, October 20, 2018

Identity Politics, Future of Democracy and India

                         With Professor Fukuyama in London, Oct 12, 2018 

Last week I attended a lecture by noted American political philosopher and author Francis Fukuyama in London.  The celebrity author was speaking on “Exploring Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition”.  It was a ticketed event but the hall was packed largely with young people but a fair amount of senior elderly academics and a few wanderers like me had also found their way to the venue. We all wanted to listen to one of the most eminent political thinkers of our times. For me, it was a rare privilege to listen to Professor Fukuyama in person whose all books I have read religiously and often followed his lectures on You Tube.  

            Those who have been following Professor Fukuyama would have found his observations during this lecture on expected lines. However, the conversation and Q&A sessions offered an opportunity to listen to his perspective on several newer areas. The professor offered an over view of challenges facing democracy in contemporary era, which varied from rise of populism to attack on institutions but the worst could be rise of right wing identity politics in recent times. He defined it in terms of an individual’s beliefs, perception and outlook being shaped by his or her racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic identity at the cost of individual identity as a citizen of a state. He also dealt with threat to institutions in the wake of rising trend of leaders distrusting their own institutions and officials and creating confusion and unpredictability by relying on their own individual discretion. He also emphasized on divisive impact of identity politics that could derail the governance agenda and fragment societies. Both during the lecture and discussions subsequently, he explained the relevance of individual dignity in democracy and reluctance of some to accept the same level of dignity that was universally available to all in democracies. I am sure the lecture would soon be available on You Tube and hence I am avoiding greater details.

Prof Fukuyama certainly offered a lot of food for thought for someone like me who has been deeply interested in governance and democracy from ever since I could think of.  I did make a brief  observation during Q&A session and tried to bring in an Indian perspective on values, norms and traditions of people-centric governance with restraint on political authority, that constitutes the core of democracy, from Mauryan era in India (I have  written it on my blog earlier).  On my query whether the professor thought it was time for the democracy to transition to the next higher stage of evolution, the humility of one of the greatest minds of our times was simply touching. He said he would like to listen from me as he had not seriously thought on what could be a better form of government than the prevailing democratic one. I was indeed lucky to exchange a few words with him later. I am hopeful of presenting a futuristic perspective, whatever it may be worth, on the direction in which democracy can potentially proceed in pursuit of a greater people-centric vision of governance, combining some of the Indian and the Western ethos, values and traditions.

We as people and society in our times have enormous potential to create such physical and social spaces that can enhance the quality of our existence, productivity and ability to collaborate and compete with each other. A more secure, harmonious and stable world is certainly possible where each can have a better all round existence as well as be in a more harmonious relationship with our respective  societies and external world beyond that. The other alternative is a catastrophic destruction  with easier access to destructive technologies in the context of increasing space for conflict and eroding capability of institutions to address these. I shall soon be coming out with detailed and specific ideas in this direction.  

Subsequent post-lecture interactions with many of the academics and very large number of young people from across the world was quite interesting. A cross section of young students from different parts of the world were so courteous and discussion was so animated that some of them walked me up to the King’s Cross Station from where I had to catch a train. From perspective of youth, it was so heartening to see that they were making friends across their identity of race, religion and language, defying the so-called wave of parochialism that was being talked earlier. Many of them had seriously read Professor Fukuyama as well as other political philosophers and it was treat to listen to them. Their commitment and sincerity towards a fairer world reminded me of my own younger days when my friends I used to be equally passionate and sincere in believing that the world would soon change to be fairer and more humane with our own contributions in some manner.

Interactions with senior academics and even a few retired professionals suggested that people in the West were indeed worried at the prospect of erosion of democracy, freedom, liberty and even economic choices. While, conceding that world was never a perfect place, many expressed apprehension over growing might of non-democracies in the world and parochialism within their own societies, which together could cripple freedom of thought, expression, innovation and even overall progress besides undermining quality of all round security. Erosion of democracy at home and economic strength of democracies in a globalised world could negatively impact both the quality of freedom and choices. One academic (not naming him as I don’t have his permission) was emphatic that dictators with unfettered powers and absolute belief in their individual wisdom create an army of cronies who have the same illusion about themselves, except when dealing with their own superiors. Such people can create havoc in the rest of the world if their state wielded far too much of power.

When we talk of identity politics, and that too of a confrontational type, probably there would be few parallels than what we can visualise in the Indian sub-continent. These substantially vary in India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries depending upon the basic character of these societies and states. In secular and multi-cultural India, identity-politics has always been there but fairly subdued. Even these should not be tolerable given the original character of Indian civilization and outlook of modern Indian democracy. The partition of India must have been one of the most horrific episodes in the entire history of mankind driven by hatred for identity of large majority of non-Muslims in the sub-continent. Almost entire minority Hindu and Sikh population from newly created nation of Pakistan was either exterminated or forced out. In 1951, India had a registered number of over 14.5 million refugees from Pakistan, with actual numbers estimated to be much higher and reported deaths of over one million or more, mostly on the Western side of Pakistan. There were casualties, even though in few thousands of Muslims even on Indian side with total migration of nearly 0.65 million Muslims from North India to Pakistan, which too were certainly not acceptable for a secular India. However, steadfast commitment of India’s founding fathers to their secular vision of the nation and a particularly powerful Home Minister in Sardar Patel ensured that Muslims in India remained safe.

I remember during my younger days, one senior Muslim politician telling during a private discussion that how much conviction and strength the founding fathers of modern India- both Hindus and Muslims by identity- had displayed in secularism that they did not waver even in face of people coming in large hordes with most brutal and  vulgar tales  of mass massacre, loot, arson and violation of their women from what constituted Pakistan. It was equally brave on part of Indian Muslim leaders to avoid temptation of surrendering to identity driven hysteria at that time. Ironically, despite horrendous experience of partition and rejection of two-nation theory, identity of a different kind – in the form of Caste  - did seep in to Indian politics. Caste has been discovered as the most potent tool  for political mobilization during elections.

Experience with history suggests that identity is integral to one’s existence and it is a highly emotive issue that defies any logic or rationale. Most people are least likely to compromise on it and even a perceived affront to one’s identity has potential to be interpreted as a personal attack. It can unify, substantial, if not most, members of a community or group. With sustained effort and under certain circumstances, it can be potentially used to generate even a mass hysteria that can be destructive not only for democracy but entire society. Most of the terror movements and organisations, varying from Zealots and Sicarii to Hashishins (Assassins) to modern day radical groups have been driven by aggravated levels of identity consciousness.  

Democracies have been the best possible form of government to optimize pottential and output of any society or state. The under -performance or crisis of democracy stems more from its distortion  rather than its so-called inherent flaws. When elections or political campaigns become tools of verbal and psychological war between contentious group identities, governance gets down to lower priority. Exploitation of contentious identities not only fractures the idea of “people” as an indivisible entity in a democracy but also destroys social cohesion and integrity, without which no society can progress. A house divided is certain to fall. In evolving democracies, it retards the very process of institution building.  Elections are certainly not a war where rival groups have to capture power as a booty for themselves. Political groups and persnnalities are more obliged to offer their services to undertake responsibility of governance in the larger interest of people, society and state without undermining their indivisible identity.  Impartiality of governance processes with a degree of empathy towards the people as a whole are the biggest strength of representative democracy. It becomes a casualty in a fractured society marked by aggressive parochialism.

Hence, debate on democracy has to focus  on both integrity and efficiency governance structures and processes which require harmonious societies where religious, ethnic or linguistic identity of citizens have no relevance.  Democracy in the West has been saturating and India has the opportunity to demonstrate both strength of its civilizational heritage and vibrance of its inherently multi-cultural  and liberal identity evolved over the centuries or even millennia. This will be possible not by preaching but by performance as a society, economy and state. We need to build a culture of excellence that extends  to all institutions cutting across all barriers whether these are government sector or private sector or media or NGOs or even University and reserch instituttions or health sector. We certainly require a culture of genuine or great leadership at every level and in every sphere. 


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