Politicians – the informal anthropologists of everyday life – understand social beliefs and behaviours far better than historians, political scientists and public commentators. This is because their existence as successful politicians depends on it. For the others, there are no serious personal or professional consequences. If “the people” fail to live up to their expectations, then that becomes a cause of bewilderment and sadness. It is assumed that “the people” have been misled or do not understand their own interests.

There are two significant lacunae in both popular as well as scholarly writings on the relationship between belief and behaviour. The first is the idea that the present can be entirely understood through the ideas of certain “great thinkers” of the past, rather than engaging with contexts of the present. The second is that, irrespective of context, there are certain deeply held beliefs that are dear to “the people”. One relates to a deep cultural insecurity – “we also have our great thinkers” – and the other is the triumph of hope over messiness of everyday life.

The autocratic nature of a series of events over the past few weeks notwithstanding, they should, if nothing else, allow us to think about actual conditions of life, rather than lament imagined ones. Otherwise, we run the risk of anguished but still-born conversations about a past that never was and a future that cannot be.

Destabilising events

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the so-called Triple Talaq bill become law and crucial amendments to the Right to Information Act. And, on August 5, the ruling dispensation succeeded in making what might yet turn out to be the most destabilising event in the life of the republic, leading to not just to political turmoil but also a carnage in human terms.

Do these political processes bode ill for a system known as democracy that consists of outcomes derived from consultations and negotiations? Most certainly, yes. Will they attract the ire of the majority of the voting public? Most certainly, not. In the wake of the cataclysmic events of parliamentary majoritarianism, a very broad range of political parties, representing an equally broad range of the Indian population have either come out in explicit support, or, abstained from criticism.

Parties and associations with claims to representing Dalits, Ladhaki Buddhists, North Indian “ordinary” people, Telugu and Tamil and Oriya-speaking populations have made unequivocal statements regarding their support for the abrogation of Article 370. And, as for the Triple Talaq bill and the Right to Information Act amendments, the number of dissenters might be counted on the fingers of one hand. News of any outrage had flown off the front-pages even before the ink was dry. In fact, it is now difficult to work out which section of the population actually opposes any of these changes.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters in Allahabad celebrate after the Indian government pulled back the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

In all this, the only thing that should surprise is the constant surprise in popular and other commentary that, once again, “the people” have countenanced such acts and have not, “once again”, followed the legacy of the key thinkers of Indian modernity (usually Ambedkar and Gandhi).

At different times, a variety of “progressive” allies have been proposed to thwart majoritarianism. These include, Dalits, Muslims (and a Dalit-Muslim alliance), farmers, the working classes and residents of the North Eastern and Southern parts of India. However, as responses to the above three key defining events indicate, these are but chimeras of hope and possibilities. And while explanations regarding constitutional legality (and illegality) and the nature of Indian federalism are interesting, they do not explain why ruling regimes are able to do what they can.

A fiction

The key reason for this lies in the analytical fiction of the idea of “the people”. This is a fiction that is used both by the state and those who seek to oppose its undemocratic tendencies. In societies such as ours, where (for historical reasons) the imprint of the state in all aspects of life is massive, it is the state’s version that usually holds sway.

This, in turn, is because in India most of the ideas that relate to “progressive” values – human rights, gender and sexual equality, the right to free speech, religious freedom, constitutional values – are not those that have any substantial number of adherents. If people do subscribe to them, it is almost entirely in the wake of personal harm or that to the community (religious, caste, etc) to which they belong. They do not become collective social values and attitudes that cut across personalised boundaries.

It is, therefore, within the power of the state to propagate an idea of the national good. Beyond the state, what people think of as the national good is entirely dependent upon specific contexts of their lives. Dalit-Muslim unity is mostly wishful thinking – see Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, for example – and workers organisations and South Indian political parties must cater to the specifics of their own situation.

There is no given national character – argumentative, questioning of authority, unequivocally tolerant, non-majoritarian – that can be appealed to. At least, it is not evident in any straightforward manner. There is, also, no straightforward Gandhian or Ambedkarite legacy (and thought) that can provide answers to the problems of the present. That requires an understanding of actually existing people and their beliefs-in-context, rather than constitutionally mandated citizens and ideas. The real task of progressive politics lies here.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist. His books include Entangled Urbanism: Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon.