Democracy is an intricate being that hopes to nudge us towards humaneness in society’s labyrinth. It is stunningly beautiful, a symphony of the highest order that demands an introspective, unselfish, empathetic way of living – an ideal we all hear, feel, touch and are even touched by occasionally, yet a dissolving mirage that ever so often vanishes from our own thoughts.

In spite of our best intentions, affirmations, structural safeguards and that universal spirit we constantly renew through our Constitution, democracy remains an enigma. And hence we cannot keep her burning within us all the time – in fact we do not want that completeness.

Democracy is a convenience that we parade as and when we want and the rest of the time, bury deep in the recesses of our mind, allowing Hyde to perform his morbid dance. And that is because democracy is essentially not humanity’s natural state. We are creatures who oppress, demand segregation, superiority, control and crave for the authority to do as we desire, irrespective of its effect on others, be it humanity or nature. Democracy undermines these traits and therefore we constantly struggle to wrap our heads around its form.

Yet it was us, creatures of power, that came up with such an idea and therefore we have to believe that somewhere within lies a possibility, a flicker of hope that we can think beyond ourselves.

Unexpected turn

Democratic choices are to be respected and the process of choice making celebrated, but these choices themselves are not always compassionate or benign. Ever so often, democracy throws up a dangerous curve ball and makes us wonder if we got it all wrong. One such scary delivery was the selection of a Hindutva hardliner as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath is not a new entrant to electoral politics, having been elected five times as MP by the people of Gorakhpur. However, we disregarded him and continue to ignore many such others who sit in our Parliaments and state legislative Assemblies.

But ever since his elevation on March 19, we have come across strident opposition to Adityanath and mammoth defences put forth by his supporters. I am not going to waste your time quoting his various violent verbal darts or actions, since they are public knowledge. And it is important to admit that he is not the first person to spout such expletives.

We have conveniently forgotten that even those with no clear religious positions have made and continue to make misogynistic, casteist and religiously divisive statements. Among this spectrum of comments, what we forgive most easily, without batting an eyelid are sexist comments. Adityanath, in that sense carries forward an ugly tradition – its saffron version. There can be no doubt that the Uttar Pradesh chief minister does not believe in the socio-religious texture that is enshrined in our Constitution.

When such people become chief ministers, we begin questioning democracy itself. Maybe it is actually so flawed, contrived and unnatural that expecting the best from it is entirely our fault? Even worse is when these moments convince us that common people can be easily manipulated and are not mature enough to make political choices.

In a way, we project Adityanath as an example of democratic failures and somewhere within, we want to impose upon others our own sense of what is right for them. We, in essence, become Adityanaths of a different order. Some reduce all this to caste calculations, campaign strategies and psephology. Elections are never independent of context-specific movements but we should go beyond that and glean from them deeper insights into our nature. Is there something we can learn about democracy, and democracy can learn about us, from these events?

The mirror of democracy

Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

The magnificence of democracy lies in the fact that when un-democratic people are elected to office, it allows us to view the state of our minds. Democracy is certainly not perfect and it never will be, but its every moment is reflective of who we are. It is not a democratic flaw that Adityanath has been constantly elected from Gorakhpur and has now been elevated as the leader of the state – it is just reality. It is also an example of how a democratic process can give us an insight into the innermost feelings of people.

Contextual occurrences, natural or staged, have a deep impact on election results but the fact that they trigger deeper suspicions and insecurities is far more important. Therefore, as much as we should be shocked by Adityanath, let us not wallow in self-pity or go on a diatribe on the fallibility of the democratic process. We need to be reassured that the electoral process has shown us a mirror, something no other system would have done.

Democracy at one level is revealing, but at the same time, also allows us to ignore simmering tensions and politics of instigation until they hit us hard on our face. In India, for example, many believe that caste and gender discrimination has almost disappeared and what remains is purely a creation of political parties.

While the opportunism of the parties cannot be denied, our inability to see reality that stares at us everyday comes from the erroneous comfort of equality, of being a natural leveler that democracy offers us. We ignore all the signs until it snowballs into a Yogi Adityanath. And in effect, we reduce democracy to that one day when we cast the vote.

While many use the expression participatory democracy, what it really means for every individual and the many microcosms that we are is hardly understood. Every citizen has to work on democracy as a personal, inter-personal and societal philosophy. We have to feel it everyday at home, with our partners and children or as we walk the streets, smile at the watchman, help an individual deal with bullying power structures such as the police and stand up unflinchingly for the rights of the marginalised.

How can we work into our living the ethical conscience that enables democracy? This is the question we need to ask ourselves every day and at every moment. And within this lies the idea that we will battle our own demons and enable others to come face-to-face with their own. It is only when we become such pro-active human beings that we can call ourselves citizens of a democratic country. We may put in place innumerable frameworks that organise democracy and hope to plug the gaps but unless we change the texture of our being, it fails and all structures fall short.

We have to realise that power comes to people such as Adityanath because they are expressing the feelings that many have within but have stopped short of verbalising or acting upon because of their inherent goodness. When those who believe in democracy as an equal platform do not directly speak against or address these people, and treat leaders such as Adityanath as fringe players, there comes time when the world becomes upside down. In order for democracy to enable goodness that transcends every divisive social construction, we have to engage with even the most parochial and partisan.

Unless we do this with earnestness and honesty, our country will be filled with powerful Yogi Adityanaths in every nook and corner. And democratically the dangerous fringe becomes the norm.

We are being warned and warned strongly that if we do not courageously converse with every section of society, many autocrats will emerge from the crevasses of our democracy. And without doubt, we have been witnessing the unfolding of such sequences in the past few years. The all-powerful leader has been handed the sceptre of being all-knowing and everything he or his battalion of warriors do has been embraced without question. The mind is slowly but surely being subdued and our hearts poisoned. The question is: are we paying attention?