Dissent and democracy

We must re-read the essay that reminds us of the time India’s political leaders encouraged debate

Ramachandra Guha wrote about the engaged opposition between Jayaprakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru.

There is one conspicuous quality missing in all our great political debates. We’re creating hilarious memes, we’re locking horns on recent national decisions, and we’re all stumbling towards an arguably science-fiction version of Digital India. The polarity of our politics has never been greater.

Every fortnight we hear our Prime Minister either placate or incentivise the nation. He’s the one who will set the tempo. If it’s polarisation he seeks, social media will give him just that. What we are missing is the philosopher. The fair debater with a measured response.

The leader of any country, ideally, has the nation and its future interest in mind. What differentiates the leaders from the politicians? We go could go on about that all night, and we’d be none the clearer. The more important question is, can we as a nation agree over whether we’ve had a visionary leader since 1947?

As a political history nerd, I find solace in Ramachandra Guha’s collection of essays, Democrats and Dissenters. While the collection covers much of our political history and its evolution, the one essay in the collection that got my neurons firing was “Debating Democracy: Jayaprakash Narayan Verses Jawaharlal Nehru.”

What JP should remind us of

Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, was a political leader and social activist well known for his opposition movement against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. But before that, he and Nehru had quite the relationship. It was a sizzling time, for the early post-independence decades had meaty political discourse. Parties and leaders were discussing the role of India in the new world, the power of religions and factions, and the integration of minorities. Things that are merely buzzwords now were tangible issues to be dealt with in real time.

Today, we’re either worshipping Narendra Modi’s vision or scampering to find a voice of reason to oppose it. And we’re hard-pressed to find a critic who can walk a tightrope with balance.

When Nehru was prime minister, he certainly didn’t lack critics, but they were far from the Twitter Trolls of 2016. These critics were articulate, passionate, challenging, and, most importantly got responses from none other than Nehru himself. They were a mix of hard and soft conservatives, communists, socialists, and democrats. As Guha describes them, “…first, they wrote extensively on public affairs; second, the speeches and essays that bore their names were their own handiwork rather than that of a ghostwriter; third, the ideas they expressed were then carried forward by the political parties they led or represented.’ How’s that for a manifesto for protest?

A year after the British left India, JP played an important role forming the Congress Socialist Party, a wing of the Congress. After the Congress won with a thick majority in 1952, Nehru called JP in to try to integrate the socialist wing. The talks didn’t work out, and JP wasn’t interested in organised politics any more. He was devoting much of his time to social issues.

So, for the record, JP had no political stake, but remained as fiercely passionate about the vision of democracy in India. And this is precisely when he engaged Nehru in a debate through letters that advised and questioned the latter’s role in the future of the country. In his letter he described a need for a “national” to represent the country, as opposed to a mere party leader – a statement that is of paramount importance right now. To deconstruct this meaningfully requires us to comprehend the idea of a true national.

Why opposition is desirable

A true national might represent a specific party, but they consider the collective nation, the differences and diversity in thought, equal stakeholders. Such a leader lends their ears as well as an amplifier to other voices, to prevent national myopia or idolatry politics.

JP thought that a real national leader would “encourage” opposition, since this would always be the hallmark of democracy. He was stunningly aware that facilitating opposition would also result in chaos. Plenty of undesirable things would emerge: factions, identity politics, and power play. In spite of this, he believed it would serve as a measure to check the monolithic sentiments and avoid totalitarianism.

According to Guha’s essay, Nehru gave the equivalent of a social media nudge to JP. He thought JP was playing “hide and seek” between the pillars of politics and social service. Funny he said that, because I bring a timely present-day comparison.

Today’s social commenters opposing government policy are often heckled for talking about the nation. In all of 144 characters they are instructed not indulge in armchair activism, or told they have no legs to stand on because they aren’t soldiers. The classic response to shut down any kind of social commentary is this one: public thinkers are far too privileged to speak for the “poor”.

JP had the perfect response to this: who if not the common citizen must pitch in when it comes to shifting our collective perception? We, the national pedestrians, need to speak up. We need to debate and transfer critique and perspective where it is necessary. Otherwise politics will remain a “sordid party game” where non-partisan views and ideas have no business being involved.

The elegance of dissent

We could make the case for thriving public thought and opinion. Even though intellectuals are being increasingly trolled, dismissed, and shut down, dissent is still palpable. But is our voice of dissent being heard? Can it be engaged with, save by members of the pathetic party-funded tweet trollers?

Even the harshest Congress critic must then reserve applause for the Nehru era. Because even though Nehru disagreed with, and even chided JP, he engaged with him: articulately, respectfully, and intellectually. Nehru not only read and digested JP’s words but wrote back to him at length, even surpassing the number of pages that JP originally wrote.

Here we witness democracy on wheels, where a Prime Minster of a nation was moving his words to meet the challenges of a critic’s feedback. Nehru’s response included his feelings of hesitation about encouraging too much opposition. His response was not without a fair counterpoint: that the many factions and deviant visions which would be a result of excessive opposition would ultimately halt the nation from working towards one common goal: to move forward progressively into the new world. He was especially frightened of “bogus opposition” based solely on special identity parties that would rely on cultural dogma instead of equality.

Here lies an example of how modern India once practiced politics. One so far from what we witness now that it’s almost surreal to consider that leadership and politics had a unifying goal to begin with. Guha ends his essay with several reasons this exchange needs to resurface in today’s political reality. But the one most profound is that this political psyche is now unquestionably extinct. And this is the grain I am still choking on.

How did we go from a thriving democracy, one that appreciated the spirit of debate enough to respond to it with equal measures of concern and integrity to being polarised agenda-filled trolls? When did we, as a nation, silently agree to show our allegiance solely to star power and cardboard PR? And when exactly did we become so intolerant to a counter opinion? An intolerance so enraged and insecure that we cannot perform the simple task of typing responses with measured facts and respect for a perspective that could in turn give us something to consider?

If you blame the current climate on absence of meaningful opposition, a semi-autocratic prime minister, or the failures of the Congress, then the present is precisely what we deserve. If we hold a mirror to our country, its reflection will only show our stoic compliance in murdering the most essential soldier in this army called our democracy.

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